Michigan Bridge Project Clears Election Day Hurdle

A wealthy opponent of Detroit's new international bridge fails to derail the project, despite spending big.
by , | November 7, 2012

For full election coverage and analysis, go to Governing's 2012 Election Center.

Money can't always buy elections.

That's the takeaway after Michiganders rejected a constitutional amendment backed largely by a single family that felt threatened by the prospect for a new international bridge advanced by Gov. Rick Snyder.

Snyder and Canadian officials earlier this year agreed to a plan for a new internatinoal crossing between Detroit and Windsor that offered Michigan a stunning opportunity: The costs of the $950 million tollroad would be fronted entirely by the Canadian government.

Backers of the project, known as the New International Trade Crossing, called it a big victory for both state taxpayers and Snyder, ensuring Michigan would have access to expanded infrastructure integral to its economic future while not saddling them with the financial risks of such an ambitious project.

But the wealthy Moroun family, which controls the privately-owned Ambassador Bridge and would see reduced traffic -- and revenue -- from a competitng structure, backed a multi-million dollar campaign that threatened to sideline the project.

That campaign, known as The People Should Decide, backed a proposed constitutional amendment that would have required a statewide vote on any new international bridge.

The campaign, which took in nearly $28 million according to campaign finance records, was financially backed almost entirely by a Moroun-controlled holding corporation. Voters rejected that amendment by a 60 percent margin, according to the Detroit Free Press.

"People made clear in Tuesday’s election that they believe in Michigan’s future and support the governor’s vision of moving forward so we can grow our economy and create jobs," Snyder spokesman Ken Silfven said. "It’s a great win for Michigan because we get thousands of short- and long-term jobs, and a modern international crossing, at no cost to our taxpayers thanks to the generosity of our Canadian friends. You can’t beat that."

Governing was unable to reach Kenneth Dobson, the Ambassador Bridge's director of governmental affairs, by phone Wednesday morning.

The campaign for the proposal drew strong rebukes from a variety of observers, including many of the state's top newspapers, which called its advertisements misleading. The effort was "a blatant attempt to bamboozle Michiganders into protecting the selfish interests of a single family," according to a Lansing State Journal editorial.

Still, the defeat of the amendment doesn't mean the bridge will open -- or even begin construction -- anytime soon. A bridge authority charged with soliciting bids must be formed. The structure of a deal with a private partner needs to be determined. Enviromental reviews need to be completed. Land needs to be acquired. And state officials say they fully expect a slew of lawsuits related to the project, which makes it challenging to predict a timeline.

Silfven says state officials are hoping to soon get a federal permit for the bridge, which is required for all new international border crossings. "Once that happens, other pieces can start falling into place."

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