Canada, as we all know, does the vast majority of its trade with the United States. Less well-known, however, is the fact that a full third of this vast majority unfolds over a single slab of concrete — the Ambassador Bridge that connects Windsor, Ontario to Detroit, Michigan. Crammed in enormous trucks, every day more than 500 million dollars of goods cross back and forth along the Ambassador from one country to the other, making it the most valuable link in the world’s most valuable economic alliance.
With two sets of national interests so utterly dependent on the bridge, it’s more than a little unusual that the thing is not actually owned or operated by either nation’s government. Commissioned by wealthy Michigan industrialist Joseph Bower in 1929, the project was entirely self-planned, self-built, and self-financed, and to this day remains a 100% privately owned enterprise that funds its maintenance through driver tolls, rather than government largess.
It’s never been an entirely uncontroversial state of affairs, as you might expect. In a storyline straight out of Ayn Rand, nearly eight decades worth of politicians — on both sides of the border — have regarded the bridge with varying degrees of scepticism and jealousy since practically day one. The mayor of Detroit opposed its initial construction back in the ’20s — until his wishes were vetoed by a popular referendum organized by Bower himself. In the 1970s, Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau tried to nationalize it, but was defeated in the courts. And now Prime Minister Harper, that great conservative friend of the free market, has come up with what may very well be the sneakiest scheme at subversion yet: simply build another bridge.
Harper’s aggressive opposition to the Ambassador status quo has mainly centered around post-9/11 security concerns — which are debatable — and lessening the hardships posed by increasing traffic — which are considerably less so. As this cute little chart from the National Post dramatically highlights, Ontario-Michigan border trade has actually declined quite notably since the 2008 recession (and bridge traffic along with it), in contrast to wildly optimistic estimates of the boomin’ early 2000s. This is not necessarily the result of a general decline in US-Canadian trade (though that has suffered during the recession) as much as a byproduct of our continent’s drifting center of financial power. As Canada’s exports become more and more bound up in the extraction and export of natural resources, it’s the highways and pipelines of Alberta that are becoming the true carriers of North American wealth, not some overpass linking the decaying motor cities of Detroit and Windsor — places whose very names are now synonymous with economic rot.
But Harper says the thing must still be built anyway, even agreeing to pay the entire $550 million cost of construction upfront and introducing new sweeping legislation in Parliament last week that will grant the project complete immunity from any and all environmental regulation that could possibly hold it up any further. The Michiganers, for their part, have been markedly more ambivalent. Calling the new bridge a big pointless waste, the Republican-controlled state legislature has repeatedly refused to co-fund, and though their governor is nominally in favor, a referendum against construction will be on the November 4 ballot. An angry and aggressive advertising blitz has been launched by the Ambassador’s current owners, who, as you might expect, are starting to develop a bit of a persecution complex.
It will be interesting to see who ultimately emerges victorious. Sensing a classic war between big government and big biz, several Tea Party bigwigs, including the Koch brothers and Grover Norquist have thrown their support behind the anti-new bridge forces, while the big American industrial unions — who are ironically poised to benefit the most from this bit of Canada-funded stimulus work — are predictably in favor. The story has not received a great deal of attention in Canada at either the press or partisan level, presumably because it corrupts the standard ideological narrative in such weird ways (Harper the government-knows-best crusader?) and feels so, well, municipal, despite the magnitude of the economic interests at stake.
It’s sometimes said that unaccomplished politicians are prone to suffer from an “edifice complex,” that is, a desire to create legacies in concrete and steel once it’s become obvious that they have left none in policy. And perhaps there’s some truth to that in the case of the unremarkable Governor Synder, but as far as our own prime minister goes, I’m more inclined to see this whole bridge boondoggle as but the latest excess of Harper’s stringent and unevolving national security obsession. The idea that private sector management of our busiest trading post puts Canada at increased risk for terrorist disruption may be implausible, but it’s still possible enough to fret about. And Harper, whose Cheneyesque conservatism on these sorts of matters represents the one strain of his ideology that has not softened with the times, seems happily predisposed to err on the side of the one percent doctrine.
The right-wing challenge of the last decade was to justify a massive expansion of security spending and federal power at the expense of balanced budgets and individual rights. The challenge of this one is articulating the economic advantages that can be born from a greater outsourcing of public services into private hands.
As a man whose political career spanned both eras, it’s a pity Harper never quite learned how to successfully bridge the two.
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