It's Now or Never for the Gordie Howe International Bridge
News item: Proposed $4B Gordie Howe International Bridge “is an extremely complicated project”
I’m not sure that counts as news per se, but it does open up a topic that’s overdue for discussion.
I can’t help but think back to December 15, 2015; when I was Chairman, Dec. 15th was the RFP release date in the WDBA Board calendar for this essential P3 infrastructure project (see prior post “On the launch pad: The Gordie Howe International Bridge” Dec. 16-15).
As we approach the sixth month anniversary of that important date, many are wondering why the RFP isn’t out yet. The scoring for the short list of would-be P3 proponents was completed on time. Litigation isn’t standing in the way of either the bridge itself or the RFP’s release in particular. The Federal Infrastructure Minister toured the site in December, and announced the new government’s “unwavering” support for the bridge project.
And yet, nada.
On January 13th, the new Interim Board Chair, Dwight Duncan, confirmed to The Windsor Star’s Dave Battagello that the project “remains on schedule to open by 2020 despite delays to release a short list of finalists to build the project.” At that point, the RFP release was not even a month late. Now that it is essentially half-a-year behind schedule, local politicians and business leaders are getting antsy.
For good reason. Nine women can’t produce a baby in a month, and my experience with the Billy Bishop P3 tunnel project reminds me that these kinds of projects don’t get completed early; try as you might. With a 42 month construction schedule, and an “18 month procurement process” (which began in July 2015 according to a WDBA spokesman), the credibility of 2020 is in stark doubt.
Brian Masse, the local Windsor Member of Parliament, recently asked the Prime Minister this very question in the House of Commons, but was none the wiser. According to a Transport Canada spokesman, “this is an extremely complicated project and procurement process with many moving parts. We have one chance to get this right.”
While true, I’m not sure that will suffice as a response to Mr. Masse’s valid concern. Although I have no longer have any inside knowledge of the WDBA Agency or the machinations within either Ottawa or Michigan, one has to assume the RFP has been delayed — if that’s a fair characterization — for one or more of the following reasons (in no particular order):
1. The Government of Michigan won’t sign off on the RFP documents for local political reasons, despite the fact that Michigan Governor Rick Snyder is a strong advocate for the new bridge. Given the challenges that the Michigan Governor faced recently in the wake of the water crisis in Flint, improving the “Community Benefits” package for the Delray neighbourhood might be timely as he approaches the second half of his final term as Governor. At least one of the Governor’s three appointees on the WDBA International Authority Board needs to vote in favour of releasing the RFP documents, which means Michigan has leverage around the timing of the RFP’s eventual release.
2. The Canadian government is negotiating with Manny Moroun to allow his Ambassador Bridge Company to build and operate the Gordie Howe bridge, rather than one of the three short-listed private sector bidders who participated in the formal WDBA RFQ process (see prior post “What exactly does Mr. Moroun have in mind?” Feb. 15-16). Note that the Liberal government has said the “project” is proceeding on several occasions; but I’ve yet to see anyone in authority say it will be done via a Public Private Partnership as the previous government’s Cabinet directed (with or without the Moroun’s).
3. The Canadian government is concerned about the alleged cost increases associated with the Gordie Howe Bridge (see prior posts “Gordie Howe’s mysterious $3.5 billion cost increase” Jan. 5-16 and “Media confuse “construction cost” with “taxpayer cost” on Gordie Howe project” Jan. 8-16) and/or the forecast traffic volumes, and are having second thoughts about proceeding with the project, with ongoing backseat driving by PPP Canada.
4. Federal bureaucrats are crossing every “T”, dotting every “I”, reviewing every number, asking for new traffic studies, creating new Deputy Ministerial oversight committees and generally boiling the ocean on an “essential” infrastructure project that was first announced more than a decade ago. The fact that some Treasury Board Officials are indifferent to the former government’s “2020” opening date can’t be helping.
Although we’ve not met as of yet, Mr. Masse, those are the most likely scenarios. I know you didn’t get your question answered in Parliament, but this will have to suffice.
One thing is for sure, the closer we get to the start of the Michigan 2018 gubernatorial campaign, the more tenuous the Gordie Howe Bridge project becomes. Why so, you ask?
It took all of Governor Synder’s political might and ingenuity to get the bridge project on the launch pad. However, for the bridge to actually be completed, Michigan’s Department of Transportation still needs to acquire hundreds of U.S. properties on behalf of the WDBA. While that process is underway, albeit slowly, Canada is in Michigan’s hands. Time is not the project’s friend. Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, a leading candidate to replace Mr. Snyder as Governor, is rumoured to be opposed to the project. Period.
Simply put, if the actual construction of the Gordie Howe project isn’t far enough along by the time someone like Mr. Schuette shows up in the Michigan Governor’s Chair, no one will be surprised if the team of officials currently running MDOT’s Gordie Howe land acquisition get redeployed into higher priority areas.
And that would be the death knell for the Gordie Howe Bridge.
Which is why we pushed so hard to get construction rolling and deliver on the accelerated 2020 opening date. There were two clear benefits to pushing forward immediately: the people of Windsor (and Ontario) would finally get their bridge, and we had a narrow window to work with a necessary and supportive party in Michigan Governor Snyder.
And work we did. The WDBA organization went from a staff of one to 45 in no time flat, the bridge RFQ was released last July, we took it upon ourselves to start to lay the foundation for the Canadian customs plaza last August, and we stirred up a robust group of private sector players who want to risk their capital and institutional brands on a complicated P3 project.
If was our mandate, obviously, and the Canadian economy needs the bridge to open as soon as humanely possible, but the situation wasn’t (isn’t) as clear-cut as one would hope. I’ve said it before, and can’t repeat it enough: If we don’t start the formal procurement process, we’ll never finish building the damn bridge. That much is clear.
What people involved in the project need to be honest about is that there remains a risk that the bridge will never (at least before 2025) be completed, even now. The Michigan political dynamic may well become, yet again, a wildcard. After everything that hundreds of people, from a variety of backgrounds and political stripes, have tried to do.
Sadly, the time has come for a personal directive from 24 Sussex. I’ve seen what this Prime Minister can do when he puts his mind to it: the “system” responds. Heads have to roll if the RFP isn’t released this month. This isn’t about opening in 2020 vs. 2021 vs. 2022.
There’s a real chance that Michigan is going to elect a Governor who is opposed to the Gordie Howe project, and everyone involved in the project on the Canadian side of the border needs to understand this simple reality: it’s now or never.
(disclosure: this blog, like all posts, is an Opinion Piece and reflects a personal view based upon publicly-available information)