Sparks fly over Line 5 tunnel legislation

By Jonathan Oosting, The Detroit News

Lansing — Michigan's Republican-led Senate on Wednesday delayed a planned vote on legislation that would facilitate plans for Enbridge to move its controversial oil pipeline from the Straits of Mackinac to a tunnel beneath the lake bed.

A Senate panel approved the proposal Wednesday morning in a 3-2 vote, but Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof said he expects changes after hearing "quite a bit of criticism" about the bill, which would task the Mackinac Bridge Authority with overseeing the new tunnel. 

The legislation would make clear that the Bridge Authority has the power to acquire, construct, operate, maintain, improve, repair and manage the utility tunnel, which could also house telecommunications cables and other infrastructure.

The proposal advanced out of committee after less than one hour of testimony, frustrating former Mackinac Bridge Authority Chairman Bill Gnodtke, who told Meekhof he was “insulted” that he was only allowed two minutes to speak.

“You used 30 seconds to complain, so now you only have one-and-a-half minutes,” Meekhof fired back, inviting Gnodtke to submit written testimony after the vote.

Dennis Cawthorne, a former Republican lawmaker and lobbyist with a long history in the Mackinac region, called the proposal a “perversion of the purpose of the bridge authority” that could be a “millstone around the neck” of a body created to oversee the bridge, not a tunnel.

He suggested the state create a separate authority to oversee the proposed tunnel. As it stands, the legislation could force the bridge authority to pay legal costs for lawsuits over the tunnel.

“I think this is wrong, and I think it’s wrong to commit the authority to having to defend Enbridge in any challenges brought,” said Cawthorne, who recommended several amendments.

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