Building Bridges

The Gordie Howe International Bridge, an economic engine sure to generate prosperity for generations to come, will stand as a testament to American and Canadian friendship and teamwork

By Andrew S. Doctoroff

As a gubernatorial candidate in 2010, Rick Snyder turned Michigan politics upside down by running as a non-ideological pragmatist, a candidate who eschewed traditional partisan tactics and promised voters he would remedy long-standing problems with long-term solutions.

A much-anticipated morning celebration in Windsor in early October 2018 exhibited Gov. Snyder’s commitment to honor this singular imperative.

The day began in an aptly workmanlike fashion. Seated on folding metal chairs in a cramped construction trailer with wood veneer wall paneling and linoleum floors, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Gov. Snyder huddled next each other.

After exchanging thanks for the unique Canadian-Michigan partnership that has made possible the Gordie Howe International Bridge project, the two leaders shook hands and then addressed a windswept, rain-splattered crowd.

Flanked by excavators and backhoe loaders, Prime Minister Trudeau and Gov. Snyder heralded a milestone that many cynics believed would never arrive: the commencement of construction of a cable-stayed bridge with the longest main span in North America. This powerful symbol of two countries’ enduring friendship will also be an economic engine sure to generate prosperity for generations to come.

Gov. Snyder — a laborer in the cause of two countries’ shared prosperity — has grinded it out, day after day, doing what he can to get the job done.

His words to the assemblage were self-effacing, devoid of braggadocio. In typical fashion, the governor did not suggest concern with taking credit. Instead, he remained solely focused on the collaborative partnerships undergirding this critical piece of transportation infrastructure.

Regarding his central role in making a new Detroit River crossing a reality, Gov. Snyder said only this: “I go back about eight years ago, to January 2011, my first State of the State address. I had just taken office. It was my first month, and I remember standing before the Michigan Legislature, the people of Michigan, saying, ‘Let’s build this bridge.”

The Gordie Howe International Bridge project’s Michigan footprint

But now as the days remaining on his administration’s calendar dwindle to a precious few, many of us in the audience who are closest to the Gordie Howe International Bridge project wished the governor had said more. Couldn’t he have crowed a little, if only for posterity’s sake?

Not enough has been said or written about how breaking ground on the Gordie Howe International Bridge was an unlikely achievement, one that simply would not have been possible without the governor’s steadfast leadership.

Of course, Gov. Snyder did not act alone. A new highway-to-highway, six-lane crossing would still be but faint glimmers in the eyes of policymakers were it not for Canada and the Windsor-Detroit Bridge Authority (WDBA), which stared in the teeth many daunting challenges. They remained resolute in their commitment to finance the multi-billion dollar project in its entirety — while driving the fantastically complicated four-year process that recently culminated in the retention of Bridging North America, the project’s private-sector concessionaire.

“I want to thank . . . the people of Canada and the government of Canada,” Gov. Snyder said at the event in Windsor, giving credit where much credit is due. “You’re providing the capital for this project. You came to [Michigan’s] aid in a time when we didn’t have the resources to do a project like this. You stepped up. You stayed with your commitment. And, on behalf of all the people of the State of Michigan, thank you.”

But, just as Canada’s role in making the Gordie Howe International Bridge a reality cannot be overstated, the role of Gov. Snyder cannot and should not be understated.

It was Gov. Snyder who studied the business case for this bridge, decided it was important to his state and then steeled himself for the fight to get it done. Unlike many members of his own party, he tightly embraced the idea of a new Detroit River crossing. He supported the new bridge, because he knew it would create thousands of well-paying jobs, accommodate increasing traffic volumes at a vital international corridor, and provide desperately-needed “redundancy” to protect the region from structural and economic damages that could be caused by natural or deliberate acts. This vision, which could catalyze the creation of an internationally competitive logistics hub, became one of the Snyder Administration’s guiding lights.

RELATED: “Gov. Snyder on Gordie Howe International Bridge: ‘You couldn’t find a better name in the world’

It was Gov. Snyder who, in 2011, refused to accept “no” for an answer after a handful of legislators voted in committee to kill the project, then known as the New International Trade Crossing. Rather than shrink from politics-as-usual and prevailing pessimism (“A bridge too difficult by far,” read one headline), Gov. Snyder resuscitated the project by executing with Canada the binding framework Crossing Agreement.

The groundbreaking of advance construction on the Michigan side of the Gordie Howe International Bridge.

And it was Gov. Snyder who, in 2012, crisscrossed the state with Lt. Gov. Brian Calley and our Canadian partners to defeat a prodigiously funded referendum that, had it passed, could have scuttled the bridge. Opponents poured $31 million into an ad campaign that blanketed the airwaves and propagated falsehoods so blatant that they would have made practitioners of today’s dark political arts blush. (One pitch was that the new crossing was going to “stick Michigan taxpayers with $100 million every year” — a claim that has never had a shred of truth to it)

Intervening years have seen the Snyder administration eliminate existential threats and, like skilled whack-a-mole players, solve problems that routinely but randomly popped up. Michigan’s successful management of project risks gave Canada confidence it needed to continue to fund the bridge project.

At all times, Gov. Snyder’s fierce commitment to the Gordie Howe International Bridge powered the project, inspiring his Executive Office staff and the Michigan Department of Transportation to channel energies and plow forward.

A partial inventory of challenges accepted and overcome by the Snyder administration underscores the invaluable role it has played in delivering the Gordie Howe International Bridge project.

Litigation: The company that owns the Ambassador Bridge, the aged single bridge currently between Detroit and Windsor, filed no fewer than five lawsuits in the United States to preserve its border crossing monopoly. The sprawling lawsuits alleged dozens of claims and defenses through a scorched-earth litigation strategy. But Michigan and its exceptional attorneys fought fire with fire. Courts have now dismissed every case attempting to stop the Gordie Howe International Bridge, and no appeal has been successful.

Land acquisition: Through funding by WDBA, MDOT has acquired — ahead of schedule — legal control of more than 97% of the 636 separate parcels of property located in the Gordie Howe International Bridge project’s Michigan footprint. Never in Michigan history has the state’s use of its eminent domain powers been so extraordinarily complex. That is in part due to MDOT being so sensitive to property owners’ concerns and the need to successfully relocate businesses and preserve jobs.

The City of Detroit: Some wondered whether MDOT would ever obtain 20 parcels and other assets owned by the City of Detroit. But Gov. Snyder, MDOT and the WBDA hammered out with Mayor Mike Duggan a series of groundbreaking transactions collectively worth $61 million. Unanimously approved by City Council, the agreements provide for job training, enhanced streets, upgraded pedestrian overpasses, air quality monitoring, and residential relocation opportunities. They ensure that Detroiters most directly impacted by the bridge project will be among its truest beneficiaries.

Regulatory Compliance: One of the many unique features of the Crossing Agreement is that it allows money spent by Canada in Michigan to be eligible for $2.2 billion in U.S. federal transportation matching funds. But Michigan’s ability to use this money on road projects across the state is contingent on compliance with volumes of environmental, safety, design, labor, and other regulations promulgated by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). The project’s procurement documents extend thousands of pages, but MDOT’s subject matter experts, working in close collaboration with the WDBA, undertook and completed the Herculean task of making sure that each contractual provision and technical schedule withstands the FHWA’s strict scrutiny.

Community Support: The rise and fall of Robert Moses, the notorious urban planner who bulldozed his way through New York City neighborhoods and gave short shrift to the human toll of major infrastructure projects, teach one overriding lesson: showing true, heartfelt concern for affected communities is both a moral imperative and a critical component of sound project management. Without community support, the Gordie Howe International Bridge project could not have progressed to where it is today. To earn and maintain that support, the Snyder administration and the WBDA made it a top priority to engage the community, listen to and forthrightly address its concerns and treat it as the vital project partner that it is. The result of this collaboration has been a robust community benefits plan and, as importantly, an enduring, mutually respectful relationship with community leaders.

The Gordie Howe International Bridge project’s many challenges have been overcome in large part because the twin virtues of communication and trust are now deeply interwoven into its DNA.

But nothing was pre-ordained. Massive infrastructure projects are scaffolded in bureaucracies where decision-making becomes siloed, context and details get lost, and factionalism prevails. The bridge project’s stakeholders have so far avoided these pitfalls by erring on the side of over-communicating, candor and information sharing. These were utter necessities, particularly given the anomalous fact that, while Canada is generously financing the new crossing, many of the most serious project risks arose in Michigan.

Gov. Rick Snyder hopped into one of the backhoes after the groundbreaking of advance construction on the Michigan side of the Gordie Howe International Bridge.

Ground breaks. Earth moves. Skilled tradespersons are on the job. The percussive banging of jackhammers and backup beepers will soon announce a construction site that is coming alive.

But we know full well that there is a long way to go before the Gordie Howe International Bridge opens to traffic in 2024. Our partnership with our Canadian friends — with whom we together have, to quote Thomas Jefferson, “gone thro’ with hand & heart, so many trying scenes” — continues. Michigan’s fiduciary duty to energetically work with Canada to complete this once-in-a-lifetime project will pass to the state’s next governor.

May we all avail ourselves of lessons learned and remain inspired by a shared vision of an architecturally stunning, state-of-the-art border crossing that will reframe Detroit’s and Windsor’s skyline, proving anew that, together, we can achieve great things.

Andrew S. Doctoroff is a senior advisor to Gov. Rick Snyder who oversees Michigan’s participation in the Gordie Howe International Bridge project.