Cross Border Management & Administration in the Detroit-Windsor Region
When you think about the city of Detroit, several images might come to mind. You may think of the American automobile industry, or even the famous soul stirring music of Motown Records that made the city a music capital. Whatever your image of Detroit might be, it probably does not include the reality that the city is indeed an international metropolis. Detroit has always been the gateway city to Canada, and it is likely the only place in America where Canada is the neighbor to the south. The shared water border with Windsor, Ontario is one of the most distinctive attributes of the city and the region, yet it is often a second or third thought.
Due to its geographic location along the Detroit River, the cities of Detroit and Windsor have always maintained a close relationship and unique partnership. Moreover, the surrounding communities, as well as the state of Michigan and the province of Ontario have strongly benefited from the goods, services, labor, capital and tourism that flow through the U.S./Canada Border. Canada and the U.S. are each other’s largest trading partners, and share the longest non-militarized border in the world. Subsequently, the Detroit-Windsor crossing is the busiest commercial crossing in North America, handling a quarter of all U.S./Canada trade equating to approximately $130 billion. Border management crosses economical, political, and social lines; furthermore, the Detroit-Windsor crossing provides a unique opportunity to innovate the way in which all border crossings are managed.
While there is much promise to further enhance this border crossing and redefine the Detroit-Windsor region, significant projects are in holding patterns and at risk of moving forward. The Detroit-Windsor crossing currently entails an underwater tunnel as well as the famous Ambassador Bridge. The bridge, which is privately owned by Manuel Moroun and managed by the Detroit International Bridge Company, carries most of the commercial and recreational traffic. The problem with the status quo is that the structure is 80 years old, very outdated, and not equipped to facilitate the amount of traffic that crosses the border each day. As a result, wait times are always long, which can affect businesses and even the casual traveler. This has resulted in the governments of both Canada and the U.S. calling for a new bridge.
The two proposals currently on the table involve another private bridge and a publicly owned bridge. The former, would be a twin span right next to the Ambassador Bridge and owned by Mr. Moroun. The latter, is a project called the Detroit River International Crossing, which would create a public bridge jointly owned by both nations, with new customs plazas and new highway connections on both sides of the border. The projects are somewhat opposed to each other, and it is very unlikely that both will be built.
Mr. Moroun’s plan to build a second bridge, has recently hit a roadblock on two accounts. The first is that it is caught up in litigation with the City of Detroit and the State of Michigan, regarding land disputes and travel routes around the bridge that were previously agreed upon. The second is that last week the U.S. Coast Guard terminated the twin span plan due to these disputes. Mr. Moroun is battling on both fronts to keep this project alive.
The Detroit River International Crossing project faces its share of opposition from Mr. Moroun and his allies in the Michigan Legislature. While the project has made significant advancement, coordinating the efforts of the Canadian and U.S. federal governments, as well as the State of Michigan, and the Province of Ontario, there is still a long way to go. Canada is further ahead than the U.S. in securing land and rights to build the new bridge, but Michigan must still decide if it is going to pay for further work on the project. State officials must make a decision by June. Even with an official go ahead, this project could still be several years from completion, and a new bridge would not be opened until the latter part of the decade.
The bridge war in the Detroit-Windsor region not only represents a classic case of political and economic interests, but takes a different spin on how the border is and should be managed. International relations are often thought of from purely the federal or even supranational levels of government. However, the actual facilitation of a border is largely a practice of intergovernmental relations. Border management not only affects the bilateral relationship between Canada and the United States, but improvements and enhancements at a specific crossing, like Detroit-Windsor, require intricate communication, coordination, and cooperation among state and provincial governments, county governments, municipal governments, and other local entities. Thus international relations among nations actually become intergovernmental relations at the ground level.
These types of projects not only require collaboration between governments, agencies, and private enterprise, but it also calls the public managers involved to have an interdisciplinary understanding of the various project components. This is one area of public administration where training in state and local management, politics, planning and land use, transportation and international affairs all intersect. This is not the first or last time that such a project will be embarked upon; however, in future endeavors it is incumbent upon governments to create mechanisms that allow efficient cross-border administration between various levels of government.
Few would argue against the fact that this issue is one of significant importance to the national and local economies on both sides of the river. From an academic and historical standpoint, this scenario presents a very interesting case study and future projects will be determined and measured by what happens at the Detroit-Windsor crossing. As a public administrator I am intrigued by the intergovernmental relations at play. However as a resident and concerned citizen, I simply want to see all the parties working together to get a new bridge built. Yet another Detroit legacy is at risk. The city, the state, the nation, and the continent cannot afford to let this issue fall by the wayside.
Marlon I. Brown, M.P.A.