06/15/2012 02:47 EDT | Updated 08/15/2012 05:12 EDT

What Delayed the Detroit Bridge? Stubborn Waters

Today Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper comes to Michigan to conclude a deal that will see a new bridge built across the Detroit River. It is the culmination of years of tough negotiations and bickering. Why? After all, Michigan trades more with Canada than any other state.


Michigan is a land of stubborn dreamers. And it is home to loyal skeptics, who doubt it can be done but stand with you when you try and can still embrace you when you fail. Its dreamers must be stubborn to overcome the skeptics; its skeptics must be loyal to cherish success when it comes unexpectedly.

This is the puzzle of my home state that surely has mystified the state's Canadian neighbours and other observers over the years.

Henry Ford was a stubborn dreamer. Will Kellogg was a stubborn dreamer. William Boeing was too, and Detroit-born. Microsoft's Steve Ballmer and Hewlett-Packard's William Hewlett started life in Michigan.

Berry Gordy and Diana Ross were stubborn dreamers, too. Stevie Wonder, Madonna and Eminem started their musical careers in Michigan and overcame the doubters to become global stars.

Filmmaker Michael Moore, assisted suicide proponent Jack Kevorkian, and former President Gerald Ford all could be considered loyal skeptics. As could fans of the NFL's Detroit Lions, year after year.

The list could go on, but the point is that you know the types, and have met them before.

Today Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper comes to Michigan to conclude a deal that will see a new bridge built across the Detroit River. It is the culmination of years of tough negotiations and bickering. Why?

After all, Michigan trades more with Canada than any other state -- mostly, but not exclusively because of the auto industry.

Michiganders have a love-hate relationship with Canada. One of the state's first governors, Lewis Cass, was a veteran of the War of 1812 whose misjudgment contributed to the capture of Detroit by the British. Ontario is a rival for automotive investment, tourism, and agricultural products.

Yet Michiganders have elected two Canadian-born governors (John Swainson and Jennifer Granholm), and former Governor James Blanchard was subsequently one of the United States finest ambassadors to Canada, keeping relations on track during the most recent Quebec separatist referendum.

So it isn't anti-Canadian sentiment that made the bridge deal difficult.

Even before September 11, 2001 there were a lot of Michiganders who felt a new bridge was needed to handle growing trade. Automotive entrepreneur Heinz Prechter promoted a plan for a new bridge downriver to connect I-75 to southern Ontario, while the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement was being negotiated. After 2001, the heads of all of the major auto companies and top Republicans and Democrats all backed a new bridge too.

So it wasn't a failure of economic and political leaders to see the need for a bridge that made the deal difficult.

No, it was a typical Michigan story. Detroit-born self-made man Matty Moroun bought the current bridge that crosses the Detroit River, the Ambassador Bridge, in 1979 when it was a questionable investment. He saw its potential despite a down economy, a struggling auto industry, and the urban blight that was accelerating in Detroit.

In the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, Moroun worked to expand space for U.S. customs and invested his own money to dramatically improve security at the Ambassador Bridge. The Ambassador Bridge, then and now, carries more trade between the United States and Canada in any given year than the United States conducts with all of Europe. If al Qaeda had understood this, they would have done more damage to the U.S. economy by destroying this bridge than the World Trade Center in New York.

That vulnerability led the governments of the United States and Canada to discuss adding another bridge to ensure that bilateral trade would remain secure. Officials of both governments worried that the location of the Ambassador Bridge, which feeds onto a city street in Windsor, Ontario that is notoriously prone to traffic backups and delays, and tight spaces for inspection booths on both sides limited future expansion. The State of Michigan and the Province of Ontario agreed, and the four governments began planning for another crossing.

Moroun the stubborn dreamer fought back, trying to block the construction of a rival bridge. He lobbied politicians, ran ads that attacked the project as unnecessary and risky, and planned an expansion of the Ambassador Bridge with his own money to prove his point.

And many Michiganders -- too many -- played the loyal skeptics, backing Moroun against his critics, accepting his arguments, and telling state politicians to oppose the bridge out of skepticism toward Washington, Ottawa, and even Lansing.

Michigan state legislators would not fund Michigan's share of the construction costs of the new bridge, refusing to cut other spending to find the needed dollars since the state constitution requires a balanced budget. The Government of Canada offered to finance Michigan's portion of the project in order to proceed in a deal that would see that investment repaid by bridge tolls. The Michigan legislature voted to reject this offer in late 2011 -- despite the fact that no money would have been received by Michigan under the deal.

Republican Governor Rick Snyder, like his Democratic predecessor Granholm, supported the new bridge and fought with the legislature over the issue. Finally, Snyder acted on his own to accept the Canadian offer, and today the new bridge project is moving ahead.

Snyder, the former president of Gateway Computers, campaigned for governor as "one tough nerd." Running Michigan, and living there, forces dreamers to be stubborn to survive.

Yet sometimes the dreams of Michiganders turn sour, and in stubbornness we cling to them for too long. Race riots in 1968 drew worldwide attention to poverty in then-prosperous Detroit. Former Detroit Mayor Coleman Young was the first African-American to lead what had become a majority African-American city, but he rejected cooperation with the white-majority suburbs and helped drive the city's decline.

The United Auto Workers hung on too long to inflexible work rules and the dream of continual pay and benefit increases. General Motors executives resisted change long after it was clear that the world's number one automaker was facing a challenge from Japanese imports. We hear the critics, yet circle the wagons and resist change.

Change comes anyway. Now the new bridge across the Detroit River will, too. The story of the fight over building that bridge will astonish future generations, in Canada and in the United States. And yet, the story is pure Michigan.