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Bill proposes felony for trespassing on major Michigan bridges

The Mackinac Bridge on a stormy day, with dark rain clouds overhead
Lexi Krupp
Interlochen Public Radio
The Mackinac Bridge Authority supports a measure that would make it a felony to trespass on the structure. (Photo: Lexi Krupp)

Back in 2020, an Ohio man scaled the Mackinac Bridge and posted photos on social media of himself sitting on top of its southern tower. Afterward, he did the same thing on the Ambassador Bridge in Detroit.

Nobody was hurt in either incident, but the Mackinac Bridge Authority took it as a sign.

“The trespasser decided to do this in the middle of the night at risk to himself and the people below,” MBA member Bill Milliken, Jr. said. “We considered it a dangerous situation.”

But when the man went before a judge in Cheboygan in February 2021, the MBA learned the Mackinac Bridge was not designated as a “key facility” and that the trespasser could only be charged with a misdemeanor.

Milliken said the incident was the catalyst for his organization to support a new bill to change that.

House Bill 5315 would make it a felony to trespass on Michigan’s major bridges by making them key facilities. The designation is normally used for places like power plants, chemical manufacturers or natural gas storage according to the legislative analysis.

The legislation would also apply to the Houghton-Hancock bridge, the Grand Haven Bascule Bridge, the new Gordie Howe International Bridge, the Ambassador Bridge, the Blue Water Bridge, the Zilwaukee Bridge, the International Bridge, the Charlevoix Memorial Drawbridge, the Windsor Tunnel and all other movable bridges.

A person who violates the above prohibition is guilty of a felony punishable by imprisonment for up to four years or a fine of up to $2,500, or both.

A prohibition against using drones to interfere with the operations of a key facility also would apply to the Mackinac Bridge under the bill.

Introduced by Rep. John Damoose (R-Harbor Springs), the legislation was passed in the Michigan House on Feb. 16 but has not been heard in the Senate despite a recommendation to pass from the Transportation and Infrastructure committee in mid-June.

The MBA and the Cheboygan County Prosecutor testified in favor of the bill in January. And just last week, the MBA urged lawmakers to pass the bill as soon as possible.

“This legislation is imperative to maintaining safe driving conditions and send the message that these risky stunts will not be tolerated. Senate Republicans have the ability to move this legislation to the Governor’s desk but have inexplicably failed to do so,” wrote Mackinac Bridge Authority Chair Shorty Gleason, in a news release.

At the same time, the MBA said it opposes two separate bills being considered, Senate Bills 1078 and 1014, introduced by Ed McBroom (R-Waucedah Township). These would expand the types of motorized vehicles allowed on the Mackinac Bridge without a permit to include things like farm equipment.

The MBA said it has no evidence of the kind of demand that would warrant the change in the Michigan Vehicle Code.

“The Mackinac Bridge Authority gave due consideration to SBs 1078 and 1014 and is always willing to work on common-sense legislation. However, these bills do not fit the definition of ‘common-sense’ and therefore we remain strongly opposed to this legislation,” said Tricia Kinley, member of the Bridge Authority.

The MBA said it is worried the three pieces of legislation will be tie-barred because they both refer to the bridge. A "tie bar" means one bill cannot pass without the other two. Kinley said it would kill the trespassing bill the MBA supports.

“Whether or not it's technical and procedurally linked, they have conceptually linked these two bills together, and we find that very problematic,” Kinley said.

Gleason said getting the trespassing bill passed by the end of the year is one of the MBA’s top priorities.

“I have spent three decades working in the legislative process, and this is a classic example of how bad bills get passed, since they can’t stand on their own merit," Gleason said. "We need Senate Republicans to remain focused on legislation to ensure the safety of motorists using our bridges; passing House Bill 5315 without linking it to bad legislation is a great way to do so."

Michael Livingston covers the area around the Straits of Mackinac - including Cheboygan, Charlevoix, Emmet and Otsego counties as a Report for America corps member.