The Michigan Senate Hearings
The goal to be achieved is not for the benefit of commerce or the people of the region. It's not anyone's job to be concerned about the economies of two countries. It is not their role.
Instead, it is a Megaproject run amok, controlled by bureaucrats and others who do not care how much taxpayer money they waste. Their objective is the taking over of ownership of the Ambassador Bridge at as cheap a price as possible.
It really is as simple as that.
It is probably only the most significant hearing with respect to the DRIC project and the press coverage of it was minimal. In the end, what Michigan does will have a dramatic effect on whether the Enhancement Project goes forward or whether a DRIC bridge is built or both if you can believe it.
Senator Cropsey’s hearing in Lansing on the DRIC project was amazing to listen to. Of all of the politicians on both sides of the border, the only one who seems to have put his mind to the issue is the Senator. Of course, he has to be dismissed by the DRIC supporters because he is a Republican and one who is prepared to give the Ambassador Bridge Company a proper hearing.
However, in listening to him, his questioning and comments were on the line of what is the right thing for Michigan.
The machinations however behind the hearing are even more interesting. Where was the MDOT Director? At the least, at the House hearing, he had the courtesy to provide a video tape in which he made some comments. He did not even do that for the Senator. Instead some mid-level bureaucrats were put forward to be the fall guys for the Director. To be frank about it, if I was the Director, I would have been embarrassed to appear in front of the Senator with the story that these people had to tell. It did not matter to the Senator. He scheduled the Director to attend another session along with the Bridge Company.
There was another dynamic at play and that was the role of the representative from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). It was perfectly clear that arrangement had been made that on any tough question he would answer it rather than the representatives from MDOT. Was that a “plausible deniability” action? If something disastrous happened in the future, the MDOT people would be able to say that they never said anything like that… it was an FHWA person who made the remark.
Of course, the Senator was exasperated by this since his interest was on his State’s people and not on some Federal representative. It was so bad that MDOT and FHWA had difficulty explaining to the Senator which agency was the “lead agency” in this matter, completely contradicting themselves during the session. I assume that it would have been nice for him to get a level of comfort that his agency understood what was going on!
It was actually enlightening listening to a questioner who understood what he was talking about and was clearly fully prepared. It was not in the style of our Mayor’s phony Perry Mason-type cross-examining but, in a quiet and respectful way, the Senator ripped apart the people who were in front of him and almost demolished the DRIC project on his own in about two hours!
Let me give you some of the comments made during the session. Some of the comments were so outrageous that they are beyond belief. In addition, certain justifications were given for the first time in all of these years.
As can be expected, there was considerable discussion on traffic volumes. Of course the DRIC people were unable to concede anything because if they did so, then the real justification for this project would disappear. Their view really was that traffic volumes are in an upward trend over the years and will continue to increase within the range that DRIC projected. Of course, there will be blips where traffic will go down. Their analogy was to the stock market where the market goes up and down but the trend is always upward.
Even though the volumes of traffic in both the Detroit and in Sarnia/Port Huron were down from their highs in 1999, and going lower as the charts showed, the DRIC people would not back down from their optimistic projections.
It is interesting to me that they had no difficulty in showing how the traffic volumes had increased dramatically over the last 30 years and and yet failed to acknowledge that this traffic is being handled by the Bridge today without problem. They did not remember that their US consultant had said that the Ambassador Gateway project on its own could handle about 5.4 million trucks, almost double the truck volume today. That is without a second bridge. There was no recognition that the Ambassador Bridge is today only at about 50 to 60% capacity handling so many trucks. While there was lots of discussion about the new technology involving drivers' licences, Nexus, FAST and E-manifest, there seemed to be no recognition that the technology would allow more traffic to be cleared more quickly at the border without the need for an increase in capacity.
What was hilarious was that they recognized that there was a need for an extra lane so that FAST and NEXUS vehicles could use it to get across the border more quickly. They pointed out that these crossing systems were useless at the Tunnel until about the last hundred yards because the Tunnel only has one lane in each direction. Isn’t that what the Enhancement Project is all about ie to add a third lane in each direction precisely for the use of preapproved vehicles!
MDOT claimed that car traffic will pick up once some of the border customs issues are cleared up, for example by a new Michigan Drivers license. I guess they forgot about the currency problems and the price of gas. They are assuming that driving patterns will go back to the way they were before. Anything negative is viewed as a short term issue by MDOT. That’s their easy way around any problem. In other words everything that has happened since 1999 with the massive drop in traffic is just “short-term.”
The forecast made by MDOT in 2005 said that at some point between 2015 and 2035 they will exceed the physical capacity of the existing infrastructure. The vagueness is due to security issues at the border. Yet, if those issues are cleared up, it seems that we ought not to have any more backups or border problems because the security concerns will have disappeared. It is bizarre to me therefore to build a bridge in 2013 to deal with a problem that may not exist in 2035. In fact, as I have shown in other BLOGs, the capacity should have been exceeded by this time based on forecasts and yet in fact the Ambassador Bridge is operating at about 50 to 60% of capacity. So much for forecasts.
ANALYZING THE ENHANCEMENT PROJECT
MDOT’s view therefore is that new “lanes” are needed. The 2005 projections however did not include the building of the Enhancement Project. It would have an impact on projections. Even with that new bridge, MDOT believes that new capacity is needed above those six lanes. The one extra lane of the Enhancement Project is not sufficient.
It was not very clear at the hearings what DRIC did as far as analysis went and reconsidering their project once the Enhancement Bridge project was announced. Sounds similar to Canadian DRIC ignoring Greenlink.
Is there now an admission of a violation of US environmental laws if a reasonable alternative was not considered completely such that the whole process is now suspect?
14 OR 15 LANES MAY NOW BE NEEDED OR 2 NEW BRIDGES
This is completely contrary to what the US DRIC consultant said previously and a change in MDOT's position as well.
Of course this is something that I don’t remember hearing before. And the reason for it should be obvious. DRIC considered the 10 lanes to be the Ambassador Bridge four lanes plus the DRIC six lanes which would equal 10 lanes. If you add in the DRIC lanes plus the Enhancement Bridge lanes plus the old bridge lanes you get 16 lanes. In other words, a DRIC bridge, and the spending of billions of dollars is needed no matter how you look at anything.
PROCESSING TRAFFIC IS REALLY THE KEY
The FHWA rep made an astounding statement that as far as I am concerned undercut DRIC completely. He said it didn’t matter whether you had four lanes or 10 lanes. It would be academic. The transportation community has to respond to the FAST and Nexus programs or the border flow-through would not be improved. If you don’t have the ability to get the traffic up to where they can be processed by those two unique programs, then nothing was being improved.
He agreed with the Senator that it was not just number of lanes but the way you are able to process to make the best use of those lanes. He just validated the adding of booths by the Bridge Company at its cost and which did not require the spending of billions of taxpayer dollars. He went on to say that it is the way you get the vehicles off the bridge to get up to where they are processed that is important because otherwise you have a queue.
The obvious point that was made by the Senator in reply was that you are looking at how efficiently it is being done at the plazas to get people moving through. His view was that it is not a question of number of lanes. If the bottleneck is at the Plaza because it is not processing quick enough then you need to get the technology going to eliminate that.
DRIC IS REALLY ABOUT PLAZA REDUNDANCY
Forget about a bridge being blown up!
Another absolutely astounding statement that came totally out of left field from the FHWA representative. He raised the issue of redundancy in a way that I’ve never heard it discussed before. He said that a bridge could be twinned, and one bridge could go down but the other one would not. He went on to say that they only had one plaza. If by chance the plaza was blown up, than they could not process traffic. Now the point is being made that it might four or five days to repair one of the major corridors in North America.
It has now gone from the sublime to the ridiculous. You see at the House hearings the Bridge Company put forward their plan that eliminated redundancy as a concern with respect to the bridge. To counter that, now FHWA talks about redundancy at plazas. That must be the justification for building a plaza at a cost of several hundred million dollars less than a mile away from the Ambassador Gateway project, the largest project ever in the State of Michigan.
What it means now is that Buffalo gets wiped out because not only does the existing plaza have to be enlarged but a new plaza must be duplicated there to be consistent. It must mean also that a new plaza in addition to the $400 million one to be built in Port Huron must be built as well. It means that there has to be a redundant plaza and perhaps a redundant bridge for every crossing in North America!
PORT HURON PLAZA CAPACITY
Then the Senator tried to pin down FHWA and MDOT to confirm that the new plaza at Port Huron, where they are spending $400 million, will provide the redundancy for Detroit. The Senator did not want to be told that the Plaza project costing twice the amount of the Ambassador Gateway project could not handle traffic if there was a problem at Detroit. In fact, he put them on the spot by saying that he was pleased to hear that the new $400 million Port Huron Plaza could handle the diverted traffic if required!
With respect to the Department of State letter of November 2005 dealing with Presidential Permits, FHWA claimed what the letter does is merely deal with an issue that they raised and that has to be further addressed during the permitting process. In my view, the FHWA rep better take a look at that letter again. The request was NOT acted on.
$200M FOR AN "INTERMEDIATE FIX"
The Senator raised the issue of multi-targeted attacks. Numbers and distances were not critical in that event. He was not impressed with the redundancy argument since he said with the Ambassador Gateway project, it was designed for built-in redundancy with respect to the various expressways.
MDOT disagreed saying the $200 million project was an “intermediate fix” whose function was to make connections and get trucks off of city streets to facilitate flow. $200 million is “intermediate?” That is not what was said years ago when the project first got started. Nor was it said recently by presentations made by the State where it was claimed that it was built to
- "Accommodate future traffic for potential second span of the Ambassador Bridge."
TO THE HIGHEST LEVELS
The FHWA representative claimed this project had gone to the highest levels in the United States and to the Prime Minister. Sure, they may have seen it but so what.
THE ENHANCEMENT PROJECT
As the clip above showed, the Senator was shocked that the Governments were not helping the Ambassador Bridge with their process if the object of the exercise was to improve commerce and the flow of traffic. All that MDOT could say was that it was a private process. Of course, what they did not say is that they had no intention of helping their competitor!
The Government people seemed almost to sit there in stunned silence as a Senator was suggesting that they ought to be helping the Bridge Company in expediting the process. The Senator had expected that MDOT would have come back with a resounding yes showing how they were supporting that project to improve commerce in Michigan.
NO NEED FOR A DRIC BRIDGE
The Senator made the point that nothing that he had heard from MDOT whether related to traffic projections or plaza redundancy convinced him of the need for a new DRIC bridge as they wanted. He said there is good redundancy for long-haul traffic at Port Huron where they are building a $400 million Plaza. He said that Plaza upgrading was more important than lanes. According to the MDOT rep the $200 million Plaza was just short term while the lanes were the long-term fix.
NEW LEGISLATION REQUIRED
MDOT said that there is a need for governance legislation with respect to the bridge from Michigan since it is an international bridge and a need for legislation with respect to tolls (tolling is specific to a bridge) and P3s. Michigan had very little expertise with P3s except for some small projects. The MDOT rep said that Australian companies had experience with P3s as an example. These firms are very interested in helping out if the DRIC bridge goes forward.
The Senator said that it was his understanding and that of key Senators that a new DRIC bridge could not be built without legislative approval. It seemed that the MDOT rep did not want to answer that question since at one point he said that he thought it could be built before governance legislation was introduced. The Senator was concerned that someone may not be telling the truth.
The MDOT rep finally said they could not build the DRIC bridge without a number of pieces of legislation being passed.
DIVERTING TRAFFIC FROM OTHER CROSSINGS
The Senator raised the issue about the DRIC bridge taking traffic away from the Blue Water Bridge and the Detroit Windsor Tunnel. The issue was if that much truck traffic (up to 16%) was diverted from Port Huron then how would the bonds supporting that bridge get paid and would Michigan taxpayers be on the hook. MDOT said that they had looked at it but they would have to get that information. The Senator said that he was sure that the Director could answer that.
The issue was also raised with respect to the Tunnel but not really answered.
The Senator asked how the Ambassador Bridge could afford to stay open if 75% of its truck traffic was diverted to the DRIC bridge. (The MDOT rep said that the 75% number “sounded right.”).
Their answer talked about percentages in relation to “future growth.” I don't know how they can possibly say that given what was in the DEIS. It is absolutely incorrect and as bad a comment as the Canadian DRIC comment about a huge plaza being needed in Sandwich which would damage the Community.
In a remarkable comment, the MDOT rep said that the Ambassador Bridge would have to prove that they would be hurt by the diversion and that MDOT had not seen any information that would suggest that. Only a bureaucrat who has never been in private enterprise and risked his own money could ever make such an absurd statement as that! Losing 75% of your business could cripple a firm!
The Senator’s point was that some study was necessary with respect to economic impact, especially with respect to redundancy. In other words, would the building of the new bridge put the other three crossings at risk and therefore end redundancy at the other crossings? They have only just started this analysis, the Senator was told, and it will be available in the final EIS. Another issue left for the future so there could be no questioning on it!
The US rationale was left in shambles by the time the Senator finished. You could almost believe that the Government speakers were making it up as they went along:
- 15 lanes,
- 2 bridges needed now,
- processing is the key and plaza redesign may be what is needed but yet there is demand for spending billions
- no significant analysis of the Enhancement Project as an alternative or its support if really needed for commerce,
- plaza redundancy,
- traffic numbers so low that no P3 investor could ever hope to break even,
- need for key pieces of legislation.
We ought not to be so smug over here when 2 of the highest ranking members of the Federal and Provincial Governments, the Ministers of Finance for Canada and Ontario, disrespect the process!