Over the border

Mar 28, 2007 at 12:00 am

With community activists and business people at his side, and with the Ambassador Bridge as a backdrop, state Rep. Steve Tobocman stood on a vacant lot in southwest Detroit last week to announce a plan he says will help boost area jobs and help revive Michigan's flagging economy.

The Detroit Democrat intends to introduce legislation that, if successful, would lead to creation of the Michigan Border Development and Protection Authority. As envisioned by Tobocman, the proposed authority would have broad powers, ranging from issuing annual operating permits for border crossings to regulating tolls and overseeing security measures.

The authority would also have the power to approve the location of a new bridge across the Detroit River. A binational effort consisting of the U.S. Federal Highway Administration, Transport Canada, the Ontario Ministry of Transportation and the Michigan Department of Transportation has for several years been working to determine the best location for a new span between Detroit and Windsor. That group has ruled out construction of a second span adjacent to the privately owned Ambassador Bridge. However, the bridge's owner — the Detroit International Bridge Co., which is controlled by Grosse Pointe billionaire Manuel "Matty" Moroun — is nonetheless continuing its efforts to build another bridge next to the Ambassador.

But it's the economic development potential of the authority that Tobocman — the House's majority floor leader — highlighted during the press conference. That emphasis is reflected in the makeup of the proposed authority, a 15-member commission that would include representatives from Michigan's Department of Labor and Economic Growth, Department of Transportation, Department of Environmental Quality and the Michigan State Police. The Michigan Economic Development Corp. would also have a representative on the panel. The governor would have the power to appoint three people representing business, transportation and other interests, and three representatives from the state's border-crossing communities — Detroit, Port Huron and Sault Ste. Marie. The state Senate and House would each appoint two members.

Among other things, the authority would be able to own property, issue bonds, propose tax incentives, recruit companies and help site industrial parks."

Because of the amount of trade coming across the border, Tobocman and others attending the press conference describe this area as being prime location for "logistics" centers that warehouse, repackage or assemble products before distributing them to other parts of the country.

"Michigan is Canada's largest trading partner and Mexico's third-largest. We do twice more trade with Canada than our entire nation does with Japan each year," says Rep. John Espinoza (D-Crosswell), whose district includes the Blue Water Bridge linking Port Huron with Sarnia, Ontario. "With a border authority, we can capture economic value from the abundance of trade and turn it into good-paying jobs for our communities."

The border authority would help Michigan create jobs that are currently being lost to other parts of the country, says John James, chairman and CEO of James Group International, a group of supply-chain-related companies on Fort Street near the Ambassador Bridge.

"This would put us ahead of the global curve," says James.

An estimated $160 billion in trade crosses the border between Michigan and Canada each year.

Tobocman introduced similar legislation two years ago, but it went nowhere in what was then a Republican-controlled House; with Democrats now in a majority, the bill is expected to encounter less opposition there. But the GOP still controls the state Senate, so there's no guarantee it will make it to Gov. Granholm's desk for signing.

Matt Resch, spokesman for House Republicans, says his party will wait for Tobocman to officially introduce the bill before taking a position on it. "Obviously," says Resch, "anything that could increase business in Michigan is something we should look at very closely."

Officials at the Detroit International Bridge Co. could not be reached for comment. When Tobocman's similar bill was introduced two years ago, however, the company was less than enthusiastic. At that time, bridge company President Dan Stamper was quoted in the publication Crain's Detroit Business, saying, "Adding multiple levels of government over the border doesn't make a lot of sense to me. I'm not sure what benefit the state brings to the table for border crossings."

Curt Guyette is Metro Times news editor. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]