Governor Snyder says "Everything is on schedule" as Ottawa blames Michigan for bridge delay
Depending on whom you believe — Michigan Governor Rick Synder or WDBA Interim Chair Dwight Duncan — the proposed Gordie Howe International Bridge is either late, or it’s not. And if it is late, it’s Michigan’s fault. Or it’s not.
One can understand the boiling frustration of the 10,000 Canadian exporters that are patiently waiting for the bridge to open, what with a nine-month delay in the release of the P3 Request For Proposal and the recent public finger pointing by Canadian officials as the source of the problem. It was only January 2016 when Mr. Duncan, as the new Chair, told the Windsor Star that the project was on time and on budget:
The new chairman of the Windsor-Detroit Bridge Authority said the Gordie Howe International Bridge project remains on schedule to open by 2020 despite [a one month delay] to release a short list of finalists to build the project.
By July, something suddenly changed. The bridge — a gateway with $100B of two-way annual trade — would no longer open by 2020, even though the P3 RFP was ready to go. Mr. Duncan blamed the “biggest hurdle…being about 30 properties needed for the new crossing on the U.S. side.” In that shocking July 17th interview, Mr. Duncan gave The Detroit Free Press the distinct impression that things were still on the verge of launch:
“We’re ready to go with the RFP. We intend to release it shortly,” Duncan said. “However because of the properties on both sides not being in our possession we’re going to wait a little bit longer before we release the RFP to make sure we are able to manage the risk associated if in fact we don’t get the properties in a timely enough fashion for when they’re needed for construction.
By August 2016, the messaging from the Canadian team was clear:
- the bridge won’t be open by 2020
- delays on the U.S. side were to blame
In this morning’s Windsor Star, we saw a subtlety-yet-pointed return volley from Michigan Governor Synder:
“Everything on the United States side is on schedule — there are no delays,” Andy Doctoroff told media during a tour of the future Canadian customs plaza site Thursday.
“All the land acquisition is on schedule,” said Doctoroff, adding about half the required 673 parcels of land on the American side have been acquired. The pace of buying up the needed Michigan properties “is where we expected it to be,” he added.
The journalist appropriately recognized this statement was the exact opposite of what the good people of Windsor had recently been told by WDBA Chairman Duncan, who “attributed delays in moving ahead on the multibillion-dollar project to property acquisition issues in Detroit”. Property acquisitions are the responsibility of the Michigan Department of Transportation under the MOU governing the joint government effort executed in 2012 by former Transport Minister Lisa Raitt and Governor Snyder.
That Michigan is only pushing back now, several weeks after being publicly blamed for the loss of the 2020 opening date, must mean that the two groups couldn’t reach a consensus as to the supposed hurdles that are preventing the release of the P3 RFP and the actual construction of the bridge span itself.
It is also evidence that Ottawa has changed the ground rules following my voluntary departure from the organization on December 31, 2015. When Transport Canada handed the project to the WDBA in July 2014, the business plan didn’t call for every single property to be in hand prior to the release of the P3 RFP. For the past 5 years, it was always understood that land acquisition would take place while hundreds of other things were going on in the background, given the expectation that the required land would ultimately be acquired under U.S. law. With some 980 parcels to acquire, and the clear legal rights of MDOT under U.S. condemnation law, there was no other choice but to double-track these things.
In the background, Michigan must now be asking Ottawa a bunch of new questions: Which properties need to be acquired in Detroit before the RFP is released? What’s the definition of “progress” on the acquisition of these “problematic” properties? How can one ever truly “mitigate the risk” (if one even agrees they represent a true, fatal risk) around these 20 contentious properties if you don’t have them in hand first, given the resources the Moroun Family are prepared to throw at the local Court system? If (like me) Mr. Duncan is “confident we’ll get access to these properties”, as he told the public on July 17th, why is he blaming Michigan for Ottawa’s decision to delay the P3 RFP release, which essentially threw the 2020 opening date out the window?
Michigan Governor Rick Snyder is the most supportive and trustworthy partner that Canada could ever hope to have in that role. If the bridge doesn’t start soon, and the wrong person ends up winning the Governor’s Chair in 2018, the Gordie Howe bridge will be delayed for another decade in all probability (see prior post “It’s Now or Never for the Gordie Howe International Bridge” June 8-16). Ottawa and its chosen Board Chair need to recognize that managing this fatal risk is far more important than the aggregate of everything else on the Treasury Board / PPP Canada “risk matrix”.
Unless Ottawa is thinking about handing the reins over to the Morouns to build and manage the Gordie Howe bridge, perhaps in partnership with the WDBA. If that’s the gambit, this is being played beautifully: create an unnecessary crisis, and then fix it by proposing a previously unpalatable solution as the only riskless path forward.
Otherwise, none of what you’ve read over the past three months makes any sense, as Governor Synder is making crystal clear. Canada’s 10,000 exporters deserve to know the truth. “Let’s get ‘er done,” or find someone else who will.
(disclosure: this blog, like all posts, is an Opinion Piece and reflects a personal view based upon publicly-available information)