2018-12-08 / News

MBA Will No Longer Oversee Utility Tunnel; Other Questions Remain

By Stephanie Fortino

The proposed utility tunnel across the Straits of Mackinac would have been overseen by the Mackinac Bridge Authority, according to Governor Rick Snyder’s original plan, but that plan was scrapped by the state Monday, December 3, following a week of public outcry against it.

Opponents said the plan jeopardized the future of the Mackinac Bridge, its finances, and the independence of its governing authority. A newly formed organization, Friends of the Mackinac Bridge, rallied against the plan in Lansing November 27 with more than 150 people from across the state.

“I’m very pleased with the outcome” to leave the Mackinac Bridge Authority alone, said MBA board member Barbara Brown of St. Ignace. “It’s the right thing to do.”

Representative Lee Chatfield of the 107th District, who represents the Straits region and is the incoming Speaker of the House, said Monday he does not support the bridge authority’s role overseeing the tunnel, although he supports the plan to have Enbridge fund a new utility tunnel.

“I believe we need a third party to oversee this project,” he wrote, “and while the MBA has done an outstanding job for decades of leaving politics at the door and effectively maintaining one of Michigan’s truest gems, the Mackinac Bridge, I do not believe that they are best equipped to oversee this new responsibility. I do not wish to see them distracted by another job, and because of that, I am pushing to create an entity that can meet this obligation instead of the bridge authority.”

Mr. Chatfield was identified by those working against SB 1197 as vital to defeating or amending the legislation.

Retired Michigan legislator and lobbyist Dennis Cawthorne, who is a summer resident and business owner on Mackinac Island, also spoke out publicly against the original version of SB 1197 and how the governor has handled the utility tunnel project.

“The citizens of the Straits have won their battle to stop the hijacking of the Mackinac Bridge Authority,” he told the Town Crier Tuesday morning, December 4.

He said that among those who deserve credit for defeating SB 1197, “Barbara Brown really was a leader from the get-go and inspired a number of us.” Former MBA Chairman Bill Gnotdke, he added, “made very strong and important points in defense of the authority.”

The testimony Mr. Cawthorne and Mr. Gnotdke gave to the Senate panel impressed lawmakers, Mr. Cawthorne surmised, as did the widespread citizen engagement.

“Perhaps most importantly, the citizens of the Straits area were really loud and clear in their communications with their two state legislators, and that made a real difference,” he said, referring to Senator Wayne Schmidt and Mr. Chatfield.

Senate Committee Passes an

Early Version of SB 1197

The bridge authority plan seemed as if it would go forward, as a Senate committee approved SB 1197 3-2 along party lines in late November, with Republicans voting in favor and Democrats voting against it. But testimony before the committee and continued public opposition to the plan weighed on politicians.

“Rarely in northern Michigan have so many people of such varied backgrounds come together in such united opposition as this case where we’re opposing Senate Bill 1197,” Mr. Cawthorne told the Town Crier.

During his testimony before the Senate Committee on Government Operations, Mr. Cawthorne suggested some specific amendments to the bill, including removing the bridge authority entirely and creating a new tunnel authority, which legislators are now pursuing. He told the Town Crier that he believes the primary reason this seemingly logical move is not being heeded in Lansing is because legislators believed that making a new tunnel authority would take too long. The lame duck session is only about two weeks long, he said, as politicians move swiftly to pass many laws before Governor-elect Gretchen Whitmer, a Line 5 critic, takes office in January.

“I think that they chose the Mackinac Bridge Authority initially, and this is speculation on my part somewhat, because it was an existing governmental entity with existing budget and staff,” Mr. Cawthrone said December 4, “and because of the broad authority that the MBA has, they probably felt that it would aid them greatly in bypassing the usual environmental permits. But the separate authority must now go through all the environmental permit hoops.”

Friends of the Mackinac Bridge

Engage Public During

Lame Duck Session

The intent of the Friends of the Mackinac Bridge gathering November 27 was to educate the politicians.

“Down here, it’s like speaking a foreign language to the legislators,” Mr. Cawthorne said from Lansing.

A lack of transparency with members of the Mackinac Bridge Authority and the people of Michigan is at the core of Mr. Cawthorne’s opposition to Senate Bill 1197. Gov. Snyder developed these plans behind closed doors with representatives from Enbridge, he said, circumventing both the bridge authority and the public. This sentiment was echoed by each speaker at the Friends of the Mackinac Bridge event, which included Mr. Gnotdke, who Governor Snyder did not reappoint to the MBA, Bay Mills Indian Community Chair Brian Newland, Sault Ste. Marie Tribe Chair Aaron Payment, and Bell’s Brewery owner Larry Bell. Mr. Newland and Mr. Payment continue to oppose how the governor has been working with Enbridge, saying the tunnel violates their treaty rights and demanding tribal representatives be included in negotiations.

“I’m reluctant to say this,” Mr. Cawthorne said at the press conference, “but this administration has not been candid with the people of Michigan nor with the bridge authority nor the tribes of northern Michigan. They have not been candid. They have operated on this issue under the radar. . . This is a bad deal for all the people of Michigan. It jeopardizes the future of the Mackinac Bridge. It has been done behind virtually closed doors. It needs to be defeated by this legislature.”

Mr. Cawthorne, Mr. Gnodtke, Ms. Brown, and others stressed that the question of whether Line 5 should be replaced in a utility tunnel was separate from whether the bridge authority should oversee the project.

“We don’t want to see the bridge authority used for a purpose entirely foreign for its original and ongoing mission,” Mr. Cawthorne said.

The Friends of the Mackinac Bridge group urges citizens to contact their legislators about their opposition to SB 1197.

The speed with which bills like SB 1197 have moved through the legislature is not atypical of lame duck seasons, he continued, as legislators swiftly work without much public input to pass bills during the period after an election and a new administration takes office. Such times are also marked by governors wielding a fair amount of leverage, he said, as governors can threaten vetoing a legislator’s bills if they do not support governor’s office initiatives.

This lame duck season has seen a number of initiatives move quickly through the legislature, including SB 1197.

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