Union leaders, opposition MPs and advocates for Canada’s steel producers say they are concerned that a portion of a $5.7-billion international bridge project between Detroit and Windsor, Ont., could be built using raw materials produced outside North America.
The Gordie Howe International Bridge, a bilateral effort to ease bottlenecks at the single busiest trade corridor across the Canada-U.S. border, is currently scheduled for completion in 2024, more than 20 years after the idea was first proposed.
Because the bridge is being financed almost entirely by Canada’s federal government, the Obama administration agreed in 2012 to exempt the project from Buy American procurement rules, and instead permit the use of either Canadian or American iron and steel.
Two components of the project on the Canadian side of the Detroit River – a sprawling customs plaza and an “approach bridge” to connect the crossing with the Rt. Hon. Herb Gray Parkway, a new extension of Highway 401 – are not subject to the 2012 waiver.
“The waiver applies specifically to the bridge and the U.S. project components; the waiver does not apply to the Canadian project components,” said Heather Grondin, vice-president of corporate affairs and external relations for the Windsor-Detroit Bridge Authority.
“Because Canada doesn’t have legislation like the Buy American Act, we don’t have those same requirements just to source locally within our own country. So there is the ability to source from outside of Canada for those two components.”
The authority says the 53-hectare Canadian port of entry, an area roughly the size of 130 football fields, will be the single largest port facility along the Canada-U.S. border and one of the largest in North America once it is completed.
It includes inbound and outbound border inspection facilities for both passenger and commercial vehicles and maintenance facilities, as well as an array of booths to allow for the collection of tolls – the project’s primary avenue for recouping the multibillion-dollar price tag.
Because it is being financed as a public-private partnership, or P3, detailed cost breakdowns of the various components of the project are not publicly available. But as a point of comparison, the cost to Michigan of building a new approach to the crossing on the U.S. side has been pegged at about US$230 million.
Jose Luis Mendez, the project manager on the Canadian side for Bridging North America, the authority’s private-sector partner, confirmed in a statement that North American iron and steel has already been procured for the main span as well as the customs facility on the U.S. side.
The procurement of steel for the Canadian port of entry and approach bridge, “for which (BNA) is considering both sources from within America and Canada and outside of those two countries, is still ongoing but should be complete in the near future,” Mendez said.
“BNA is unable to comment further at this time on remaining procurement activities due to commercially sensitive reasons.”
USW Canada national director Marty Warren, sworn in just Tuesday as the new leader of the Canadian wing of the United Steelworkers union, said he doesn’t understand why the federal government didn’t insist on the use of Canadian materials.
After all, he noted, Canada is being forced more and more to navigate the made-in-America procurement rules that seem to now be standard operating procedure for the country’s single largest trading partner.
“It’s disappointing to me that our Liberal government hasn’t stepped up and said, at least, ‘That portion of that project is going to be Canadian steel,’” Warren said in an interview.
“It’s about our North American image as well. I think that’s what’s most important, that if a bridge that comes into being would be using foreign steel, that would be just a shot in the belly to both of us.”
Brian Masse, the NDP MP who has represented the riding of Windsor West since 2002, was a city councillor back in 1998 when he first started making a public case for a new span to ease some of the chronic cross-border congestion plaguing the now-92-year-old Ambassador Bridge.
Masse remembers attending a Detroit Tigers game with former Minnesota congressman Jim Oberstar, a longtime member of the bilateral coalition of lawmakers known as the Canada-U.S. Inter-Parliamentary Group.
Then-president Barack Obama – whose vice-president at the time is now the U.S. commander-in-chief and a vocal champion of U.S. protectionism – was in the process of resurrecting the spectre of federal procurement rules designed to favour American suppliers and contractors.
“(Oberstar) said that we would need to have some type of constructive response,” Masse recalled.
“You know, we don’t want to get into more protectionism, but the reality is that until we create our own kind of point of conversation, there’s really nothing for us to go to the Americans with other than on bended knee.”
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