Thursday, November 1, 2012

Ballot Proposal Mayhem Part VI: Bridge Over Troubled Water

FYI: This is a slightly long post...

So I'm a couple days late with this post.  Yesterday was my husband's birthday so we were busy celebrating.  We also had my mother and father-in-law over for the day and night so we had lots to do to get ready and then celebrate!  Doesn't matter that we're all a little sick, we can still have fun!

So today I'm going to finish up the proposals and we will be talking about Proposal 6.  I think I've been looking forward to talking about this proposal the most, quite possibly because I thought of the title back before I even started writing about Proposal 1 :-)  I'm sort of a dork that way.  But I digress...

This proposal would:
  • Require the approval of a majority of voters at a statewide election and in each municipality where "new international bridges or tunnels for motor vehicles" are to be located before the State of Michigan may expend state funds or resources for acquiring land, designing, soliciting bids for, constructing, financing, or promoting new international bridges or tunnels.   
  • Create a definition of "new international bridges or tunnels for motor vehicles" that means, "any bridge or tunnel which is not open to the public and serving traffic as of January 1, 2012."  
Should this proposal be approved?

If you have breathed somewhere in the state of Michigan in the last couple months you have probably seen an ad about Proposal 6 with it's tagline of  "The people should decide".  If you are anything like me (which would be fabulous if I do say so myself) you're probably getting sick of seeing them on TV and hearing them on the radio.  It's a good thing we watch a lot of Netflix, otherwise I'd probably want to throw my TV out the window by now :-)

As much as I love the phrase "The people should decide" and think it has merit in a lot of different areas dealing with politics I think this proposal is the most self-serving proposal I've ever heard of and I'll tell you why as soon as I give you some background information.

First of all let me say that it is generally recognized that this proposal is dealing specifically with the New International Trade Crossing (NITC), also know as the Detroit River International Crossing (DRIC) which is a bridge that the State of Michigan, in conjunction with the Canadian government, would like to build near the Ambassador Bridge.  It would be a second bridge connecting Detroit to Windsor and would connect directly to the freeway on both sides of the bridge.

Currently  the Ambassador Bridge is the only bridge that connects Detroit to Windsor, Ontario.  This suspension bridge has been around since 1929.  It is currently owned by Manuel "Matty" Moroun through the company Detroit International Bridge Company Holdings (remember the name DIBC Holdings for later in the post).  According to the website for the Ambassador Bridge above 25% of all the merchandise traded between Canada and the United States crosses over this bridge.  That's quite a large amount!  So not only  is the bridge privately owned, (i.e. DIBC Holdings gets the toll money), the owner, Mr. Moroun also owns the duty-free shops and gas stations on/near the bridge.  It's safe to say that he earns some serious cash.

The Ambassador bridge is a nice bridge but it has some shortfalls,  the primary one being that when the bridge empties out into Windsor it empties into a residential neighborhood and does not connect directly to a freeway.  Think Mackinac Bridge where you enter and exit right onto I-75.  Yeah, that doesn't happen in Windsor, instead you just end up driving on a highway-like road with lots of stoplights.  Another problem is that the bridge is OLD!  I mean come on, it's 83 years old, plus it has some infrastructure problems.  Currently volume isn't a huge deal, but as Michigan's economy grows (and yes, it's expected to) so will the traffic volume and with only 4 lanes the Ambassador bridge won't be able to handle all of it.

In March 2002 a planning committee was formed to begin looking at the possibility of building a new bridge to Canada with the Canadians and to have it be owned by the government.  This study lasted almost 7 years, being completed in January 2009.  It was a very intense study that looked at environmental impact, the feasibility of building a bridge, and many other aspects of the project.  It was decided in the end that building the bridge was a good idea.

Shortly after the findings were released and the government stated their intent to build the NITC (new bridge) Mr. Moroun released a plan to build a 2nd bridge right next to the Ambassador Bridge.  It would cost him approximately $1 Billion and would be owned Mr. Moroun. 

Alright, now on to the concerns....

1.  The proposal says that a definition needs to be created for the term, "new international bridges or tunnels for motor vehicles" and that definition will be "any bridge or tunnel which is not open to the public and serving traffic as of January 1, 2012".  As this is rather vague a judge will most likely have to rule on what exactly this means before it goes in the Constitution.  Depending on the judge it's quite possible that they could decide that really means ANY bridge ANYWHERE in the state that is built with state money, which is pretty much all the bridges.   So yeah, if this proposal passes and a bridge needs to be built by the state then it's going to have to go to a vote of the people.  That brings me to my next point....

2.  How would a "vote of the people" work since their have to be two votes: a state-wide vote and a vote by the municipality (city, village, township, etc) where the bridge construction will take place.  First of this proposal would cause the vote of the people about the bridge to be voter initiated legislation.  That means that for a bridge vote to even get on the ballot a group of citizens would have to create a petition (which is a big hassle that has to go before a judge) and get signatures to the tune of 8% of the number of people who voted for any of the governor candidates in the previous election.  Plus it is very unclear whether there would need to be a state-wide petition and a municipality petition or just one or....?

3. When should the voting take place in the planning process?  As I mentioned above it took 7 years of study to actually decide to build the new bridge.  During that time the state of Michigan spent nearly $42 million (80% federal funding and 20% dedicated funds from a special account).  Clearly it costs money to assess the need for a bridge so should the state put out money to decide whether or not they even need a bridge before putting it to a vote of the people.  That's not really good business sense, especially if the vote doesn't go well.  However what happens if the people vote yes and then something happens and the bridge doesn't need to be built.  That's money wasted on a petition drive and an election.  Some more food for thought:  If this proposal passes and the new bridge is put to a vote of the people and is voted down the State of Michigan will have to pay $33 million that it doesn't have back to the Federal government for the financial aid they were given for the study. If that needs to be paid back then we can start talking about a waste of taxpayer's money.

4. If you listen to the ads you'll here them say that this bridge will be built at the expense of taxpayers.  However this is untrue.  The State of Michigan and the Canadian government signed a contract on June 15, 2012 detailing who will pay for the bridge.  In the agreement, which you can read here, it says, "The Michigan Parties are not obligated to pay any of the costs of the new International Crossing".  Michigan is eligible to receive funding from the Federal Government for this project but first we have to be able to match it with our own funds.  If you take the time to read through the agreement/contract you will see that Canada will be paying the State of Michigan $550 million to match the Federal funds and then Canada will be repaid through the tolls.  Thus not spending any Michigan taxpayers money through state taxes.    Now I know that a lot of people say, "If it sounds too good to be true it must be too good to be true!".   It's always hard to tell, but everything I'm able to find right now says it's true.

5.  I don't like to be a conspiracy theorist, but I find it interesting that the majority of the money funding Proposal 6 and the committee promoting it called "'The People Should Decide' comes from DIBC Holdings, the same company that owns the Ambassador Bridge.  Don't believe me?  Look at the financial report that was just filed a few days ago by The People Should Decide.  This report details financial records from mid-July to mid-October.  In just those three months alone DIBC Holdings dropped a cool $24.5 million.  From mid-April to mid-July DIBC Holdings gave The People Should Decide Committee $4.5 million.  That's $30 million folks. By the same group.  That is officially the most expensive campaign on record in the State of Michigan.

And, if you look at the expenditures of the committee, at least $16.5 million of that have been in advertising and promotion, that's why you're seeing all the TV commercials and hearing it all over the radio.  And I would like you to notice something else.  The address on file for 'The People Should Decide' Committee is the same address that is listed under DIBC Holdings in the donations section.

So tell me why DIBC Holdings, which owns the Ambassador Bridge, would spend $30 million to keep a bridge from being built?  It's simple, Mr. Moroun does not want the competition.  He has a very lucrative deal going.  While he does not have a monopoly on crossing into Canada the Ambassador Bridge has the most direct route to Canada from the midwest and is easily the most traveled.

I'll throw in one last little fact mostly because it annoys me.  As I stated earlier Mr. Moroun owns duty free shops and gas stations associated with the bridge.  Duty free means that there is no tax whether it be state, federal, or excise.  This means that depending on the price of gas Mr. Moroun gets around a $0.60/gallon discount on gas and he could (note the word "could") sell it for less than neighboring stations.  Now let's look at current average gas prices around the state really quick - Grand Rapids: $3.37, Lansing: $3.35, Traverse City: $3.40, Flint: $3.40, and Detroit: $3.30.  As reported on the Ambassador Bridge website today their gas price is: $3.32.  So Mr. Moroun is pocketing close to $0.60 on each gallon of gas he sells.  That means for a 15 gallon fill up he pockets around $9. C-R-A-Z-Y!

No wonder he doesn't want another bridge, or at least one not owned by him....

And lastly...

6.  Here I go with the whole Constitution thing again.  This is not something that should be in the Constitution because at it's very base it's about one man's concern and isn't really about what the people want.

So despite the lofty and not altogether bad idea that "The People Should Decide" this proposal is, in my opinion, one man attempting to keep a really good thing going for himself.  Not only that, but if he gets his way, and this proposal is passed, it could stunt growth in this state in terms of improving infrastructure.  Basically this is his pet project that he's trying to foist on the people of Michigan without really telling them what's what.

 My opinion on Proposal 12-6: Vote NO