CHICAGO — Traffic between Michigan and Canada may not be sufficient in the short term to justify construction of a new $3.5 billion trade bridge between the two countries, but that will likely change over the long term, Fitch Ratings said in a commentary released this week.
“In the near term, it’s not as if there is massive demand,” said Tom McCormick, the Fitch analyst who wrote the comment “New Michigan Bridge Requires Traffic Increase.”
“But we do see that there are drivers for increased border trade over the next 10 years,” he said. “There is a basis for anticipating increased traffic flow, but the timing is not something that I would predict.”
Among the big changes that could drive an increase in cross-border traffic would be manufacturing jobs shifting back to North America from China, which has benefited from low oil costs, low wages and low regulatory costs for the past decade.
“That equation is changing now,” McCormick said. “In the past five years, we’ve seen some incremental return of manufacturing jobs to North America.”
Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper last week announced a final agreement for the new bridge, ending years of bitter debate among Michigan lawmakers. The project will be structured as a public-private partnership, with Canada taking on nearly all of the financial risk. Canada will make availability payments to the private firms, with the expectations that tolls will provide most of the revenue.
The new span will be built about two miles from the Ambassador Bridge, the privately owned, 82-year-old structure that is the only current overwater crossing.
Traffic projections are key to the bridge debate. Supporters, like Snyder, cite studies showing that truck traffic will triple over the 30 years, and argue that the new bridge will solidify Michigan’s future as a top exporter. Opponents, led by the owners of the Ambassador Bridge, say the governments’ traffic projections are wildly optimistic.
In its commentary, Fitch noted that traffic at most U.S. border bridges have been in decline since 2000, but said it is difficult to predict future trade patterns.
“I do think that’s going to change,” McCormick said. “There are macro drivers for manufacturing to relocate to North America. Also, you can’t just build a bridge when you need it. It’s not always best to wait until you’re so congested that it’s essential. … Considering when to build infrastructure for long-term future needs and how to balance congestion versus toll revenue — these are classic things for governments to resolve.”
The new agreement sets up an intergovernmental authority that will likely issue tax-exempts bonds to finance much of the project. It calls for Canada to spend $2.3 billion, the private partners to invest $950 million and U.S. federal dollars to provide $237 million, according to Fitch.