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Who could buy the Detroit-Windsor tunnel?

For years, we’ve heard a lot about the Ambassador Bridge, and the battle to build a second span across the Detroit River. What didn’t ever seem to get in the news was the Detroit-Windsor tunnel.

Through the tunnel can’t carry heavy freight, millions use it to go back and forth from the U.S. and Canada every year. If you are in downtown Detroit, the tunnel is more convenient than the bridge, and usually faster.

I knew that it had been built in 1930, opening at almost exactly the same time as the Ambassador Bridge. What I did not realize till last week, however, was that it was almost the only underwater international vehicle border crossing in the world.

Everyone today sort of takes it for granted. But the tunnel did finally burst into the news last month, when the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel Corporation startled everyone by filing for bankruptcy.

The tunnel, I had always been told, was owned jointly by the cities of Windsor and Detroit, which is in fact the case. But it was run for the cities by a subsidiary of a firm called American Roads, the firm which filed for Chapter Eleven.

The tunnel is still running, and American Roads expects to get through bankruptcy and resume normal operations. But the bankruptcy has gotten people thinking about the future of the tunnel.

There has been a large, mainly unspoken fear that controversial Ambassador Bridge owner Matty Moroun would somehow buy it. Detroit had been on the brink of selling its half to the city of Windsor five years ago, before that was derailed by the Kwame Kilpatrick scandal. With the city in the process of trying to file for bankruptcy, some say Detroit might as well go ahead and sell it.

Well, what I do know is this. Whenever I have talked to people about the battle over a new bridge, they are generally amazed that one private individual was ever allowed to own an international border crossing, let alone the most important one.

They thought it should be jointly run by the two governments, and in my view, the same should be true of the tunnel.

Washington and Ottawa should move jointly to buy the Detroit-Windsor tunnel. After all, both nations long ago constructed toll plazas at either end of the tunnel; they should be in charge of it.

I am not alone in this. Bill Marra is both a member of Windsor‘s city council, and a director of the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel Corporation. He wants the Canadian federal government to consider what in their system is called a P3 partnership, which would, he says “bring in private investment but ensure public ownership and government oversight.”

Brian Masse, who represents Windsor in Canada’s Parliament, more or less agrees; he thinks all levels of Canadian government should have a meeting to discuss the situation. He’s right, but there should also be a similar meeting on our side, followed by an international conference, and a pattern-setting agreement.

Putting together an authority to run both the tunnel and the eventual new bridge makes sense, and there’s no time like the present to start. Crises, after all, aren’t always bad. In fact, if handled correctly, they can be the doors to opportunity.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Jack Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee the University of Michigan.