CHICAGO — The chair of a Senate subcommittee in Michigan Wednesday abruptly put off a key vote on a $4 billion, partly bond-funded bridge linking Detroit and Canada.
The long-awaited vote was to be the first on what has become the state’s most controversial legislative debate.
Sen. Mike Kowall, R-White Lake Township, chairman of the Senate Economic Development Committee, announced he was adjourning the crowded session moments after it began, saying he had insufficient time to review a substitute bill that he was handed shortly before the meeting.
Noting that it’s customary for the chairman to review bills in advance, Kowall said he was “good and irritated” by the last-minute switch.
He requested that representatives from Senate Majority Leader Sen. Randy Richardville, who sponsored the bill, and Lieut. Gov. Brian Calley’s office meet with him to discuss the new measure.
The committee could meet again as soon as Thursday for a vote.
The extent of the changes offered in the substitute bill is unclear, though local newspapers reported that they mainly expanded benefits for Detroit residents who would be affected by the construction. The provision is expected to solidify Democratic support.
Many Republicans, including Kowall, remain opposed to the bridge proposal, though others have changed their minds since earlier this year when Republican Gov. Rick Sndyer emerged as one of its top supporters.
Snyder has said the project is one of his top priorities, and that he wants a vote by the end of the year.
Snyder’s bills would create a bond-issuing authority that could enter into a public-private partnership for up to 50 years.
The authority would then issue 50-year tax-exempt bonds backed solely by project revenue. The legislation bars the issuance of any debt that carries a state moral or general obligation pledge
The bill has been stalled for months in the committee while it held hearings during the summer and through October. As of Wednesday morning, supporters of the publicly funded bridge appeared confident that the panel would approve the legislation, moving the project forward for the first time in years.
The bridge would be built over the Detroit River between Michigan and Windsor, Ontario, to ease congestion at what is the busiest trade route in the United States. It would be a partnership among Michigan, Windsor, and the U.S. and Canada and cost anywhere between $2.1 billion and $4.7 billion, including new custom plazas and interchanges.
Revenue bonds backed by tolls and rents from duty-free shops would finance 44% of the costs.
Critics argue that there is no reason to build a public bridge when the owner of an existing bridge two miles upriver plans to build his own replacement span. Manuel Maroun, owner of the Ambassador Bridge, expects to spend $500 million for the new bridge, and has been fighting to defeat the government plan.
Recently, he has run a series of advertisements warning that Michigan taxpayers will be on the hook if tolls fail to generate enough revenue to pay off the bridge debt.
However, proposed bond covenants in the pending legislation actually limit taxpayer risk.
If the new authority retains toll-setting power, then Canada has offered to take full responsibility to provide debt service payments if revenues fall short.
Sources have said that is the most likely scenario.
If the private company operating the bridge has the power to set toll rates, the legislation requires a bank or other financial guarantor to take full responsibility for timely payments to bondholders.