How a bridge to Canada got the axe from American lawmakers

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Funding for this bridge between upstate New York and the Ottawa-Montreal region, seen here in March 2020, was included in a major U.S. pandemic-relief bill. Then it was chopped. (Christine Muschi/Reuters)

This story is part of Watching Washington, a regular dispatch from CBC News correspondents reporting on U.S. politics and developments that affect Canadians. 

What’s new

As American lawmakers inched toward approving a bill with an eye-watering 13-digit price tag, it was apparently a bridge to Canada that proved a bridge too far.

Funds to upkeep an existing cross-border bridge from Massena, N.Y., to Cornwall, Ont., were included in, and have now been stripped out of, a $1.9 trillion US pandemic-relief bill that Congress could pass any day.

Less than one-millionth of the bill’s overall price tag had originally been set to fund operations of the half-century-old Seaway International Bridge, jointly run by the Canadian and U.S. governments.

The original version of the bill that passed the U.S. House of Representatives guaranteed $1.5 million for several months’ funding of the span, which connects upstate New York with the Ottawa-Montreal area through Cornwall, Ont.

“It’s a vital, necessary access point between our two countries,” Steven O’Shaughnessy, the town supervisor of Massena.

That funding is gone in the latest version of the bill, which could be advanced into law any day by the U.S. Senate.

If adopted, the bill would become the first major piece of legislation passed during Joe Biden’s presidency and would fund a vast array of causes, from reducing child poverty to expanding access to health care to sending out $1,400 relief cheques to Americans.

What’s the backstory

Critics called it a ‘bridge to nowhere’ and accused top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer, a New Yorker, of pork-barrel politics. But New York Republicans wanted the bridge funding, too. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

So how did one of the most expensive pieces of legislation in American history, which will affect tens of millions of lives, stumble over a bridge that ends near the Cornwall BBQ in southeastern Ontario?

As fate would have it, that bridge became a symbolic talking point for critics of the bill.  

Republicans pointed to it as an example of how myriad items unrelated to the pandemic are being crammed into a supposed rescue package.

“We have millions upon millions of dollars for this lovely bridge to get from New York into Canada,” Iowa Senator Joni Ernst said earlier this week, inflating the price of the bridge upkeep. “And, folks, how is that helping us fight COVID?

“This is supposed to be a COVID recovery package. And somehow I don’t see my Iowa taxpayers benefiting from those porky pricey projects.”

Never mind that funding for the bridge has previously been supported by New York lawmakers from both parties, including Senate Leader Chuck Schumer and the area’s House lawmaker, Elise Stefanik.

It became Exhibit A of the idea that this 630-page bill, which would also allot billions of dollars to expanding health coverage and decreasing child poverty, is about more than COVID.

It was derided on Fox News, in its news coverage and by its hosts, as a “bridge to nowhere.”    

But it’s more complicated than that. 

The bridge, which has seen toll revenues drop during the pandemic, sits in the district of New York Republican lawmaker Elise Stefanik. She has previously supported additional funding for the bridge but voted against the stimulus bill that included $1.5 million US for upkeep of the span. ( Republican National Convention/Handout via REUTERS)

Democrats have argued that most of this bill’s items are, indeed, connected to COVID-19 — including that bridge funding.

The pandemic has caused a spectacular drop in cross-border traffic, with a 70 per cent plunge in toll fees collected at the bridge since last year, said a U.S. official with the binational Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corp.

So why not just fund the bridge in a transportation bill instead of a pandemic-relief bill?

Blame the joys of the American legislative process. 

A generation of partisan gridlock has resulted in fewer bills becoming law. So majority parties have tended to rely more often on a legislative shortcut, a process called reconciliation, which allows a bill to pass with just 51 Senate votes instead of 60.

The catch with that process is it can only be used once a year, on a budget bill. Which is how you wind up with all sorts of unrelated items crammed together in what is colloquially referred to in Washington as a Christmas tree bill.

In the end, under this particular tree, there was nothing left for Cornwall and Massena.

What’s next

Democrats pulled that item, and some other items, out of the Senate bill to help silence the naysayers and ease its adoption.

The bridge is now funded through the end of this month thanks to $2.5 million delivered from the Canadian government last year. 

But the U.S. official said the cash originally in the bill would have supplied funding from next month to September. Without it, the official said, there could be an impact on its services and its essential workers.

The bridge itself is in decent physical shape after millions of dollars in renovations over the last decade.

Bernadette Clement, mayor of Cornwall, said she hopes it stays that way because it not only connects families and friends and the regional economy but also supports international trade, with hundreds of commercial trucks using it each day.

The Seaway International Bridge joins Cornwall, Ont., and Massena, N.Y. It is a regional link between Canadian and American communities and also a commercial trade link that sees hundreds of trucks per day. (CP)

“It is extremely important to our national economies,” Clement said. “The maintenance of those bridges — it’s critical for us.”

When asked what happens after this month, a Canadian government spokesperson said the bridge’s critical needs will be met — but did not immediately say whether it might require an additional cash injection from Ottawa.

It wouldn’t be the first time political gridlock in the U.S. left Canada with the bill for a cross-border bridge. 



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