WASHINGTON - Still smarting from the sting of the latest Keystone XL delay, a Canadian cabinet minister was in the U.S. on Friday to push for progress on another major bilateral file: a new bridge crossing between Windsor and Detroit.
Transport Minister Lisa Raitt used her visit to request funding for completion of a replacement for the aging bridge that handles nearly one-third of all Canada-U.S. trade.
She delivered the message in a Chicago speech, one week after the Obama administration announced an indefinite delay in a decision over an oil pipeline that has caused tensions between the two national governments.
Raitt noted that the Canadian government has put up nearly all the money for the New International Trade Crossing and is simply awaiting the U.S. government to fund a new customs plaza on the American side.
"The government of Canada is concerned about the vulnerability of that trade and the jobs it sustains in both our countries," said the prepared text of Raitt's speech, which she delivered to the NAFTAnext summit in Chicago.
"President Obama issued a presidential permit for the bridge in 2013, and all that is missing now is the commitment of the U.S. government to build a new customs plaza in Detroit. Canada continues to await a decision by the U.S. government to pay for this new facility. It requires a relatively modest investment — some $250 million out of the $4 billion overall cost for the project.
"But this final hurdle is holding up a vitally important project."
The new public replacement for the privately owned, 85-year-old Ambassador Bridge has the stated support of both national governments. As a Canada-U.S. trade issue, it might only be rivalled by Keystone XL.
But don't expect things to move faster to soothe any hard feelings over the stalled pipeline project, said one Canada-U.S. watcher. David Biette of the Wilson Center counts a number of ways the two files are entirely separate.
For starters, Keystone XL was delayed by a Democratic administration amid election-year divisions among Democrats. The bridge is more likely to face funding obstacles in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives from conservatives opposed to new government spending.
In that context, Biette said, it's not so easy for an outcome on one file to lead to change on other. It's just U.S. politics, where friends and foes can vary from one issue to the next.
"The United States tends not to link things," Biette said.
"And the Canadians are quick to think about linking things. As in, 'If you don't do acid rain, we won't do... fill in the blank.' Or on softwood lumber."
The bridge project also faces opposition from the owners of the current Ambassador Bridge. They'll be in court next week seeking an injunction preventing the U.S. Coast Guard from issuing the last permit required for the new public project.
The privately owned Detroit International Bridge Co. will argue that the new project infringes its rights, acquired under century-old arrangements. It wants to build its own new span, next to the existing bridge near downtown Windsor, and accuses the national governments of blocking it with red tape.
"While (Raitt) wants a new bridge, bureaucrats are stopping a new bridge," said Dan Stamper, president of the Ambassador Bridge.
"They don't like the idea of a private bridge, and they don't like the idea of a private bridge owned by a U.S. citizen."
The Canadian government calls the existing site, in downtown Windsor, impractical for a major lane expansion and has thrown its full support behind a construction project already underway far from the downtown core.