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Opinion

Why is Obama administration blocking Detroit River bridge?

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Beltway Confidential,Opinion,Michael Barone,Barack Obama,Detroit,Canada,Michigan,Rick Snyder,Trade

Why isn't the Obama administration willing to finance the customs plaza for the new international bridge over the Detroit River between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario? That's a question raised by this article in the Wall Street Journal.

As the Journal notes, the government of Canada has agreed to pay, as part of a public-private partnership, about $3.65 billion for building the bridge, including a $550 million link with Interstate 75 in Detroit. The new bridge would provide an alternative for the privately owned Ambassador Bridge, which was opened in 1929. Yet the Obama administration isn't ponying up $250 million to build a customs plaza.

The terms and conditions under which bridges are built across the U.S.-Canada border, under a 1970s law, are negotiated by state governors with the federal government of Canada. This deal was negotiated by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, and favorable terms were obtained in part because this crossing accounts for one-quarter of U.S.-Canada commerce. GM and Chrysler auto supply chains cross the border routinely; this was encouraged by the 1965 auto parts free trade agreement between the U.S. and Canada, the predecessor to the North American Free Trade Agreement. Should the 84-year-old Ambassador Bridge suddenly become unavailable, Canada's economy would take a sharp hit -- hence the Canadian's willingness to raise or spend most of the money to build a new bridge.

Why is the Obama administration withholding the $250 million for the customs plaza? One possible reason: to propitiate Matty Maroun, the Michigan billionaire who owns the Ambassador Bridge and profits handsomely from tolls and concessions. He has financed Michigan ballot propositions designed to stop funding the new bridge, to which he remains strongly opposed. Or perhaps the Obama administration is indulging in a fit of pique against the government of Canada, which keeps pressing for approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, which has been pending now for five years (longer than the time from Pearl Harbor to the surrender of Germany in 1945). Or maybe the administration is just letting this project fall through the cracks through sheer incompetence or inertia.

President Obama likes to talk about funding new infrastructure projects. But here, on a project almost all of whose funding will be provided or arranged by the government of Canada, the Obama administration isn’t providing the relatively small amount for the customs plaza. Democratic and Republican members of the Michigan delegation shouldn’t be the only people asking why.

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