Lots of trouble under the bridge - Macleans.ca

Lots of trouble under the bridge

A battle over a new bridge linking Windsor and Detroit heats up

Lots of trouble under the bridge

Dave Chidley/CP

Michigan’s newly elected Republican governor, Rick Snyder, recently endorsed a proposed US$2-billion bridge linking Detroit, Mich., with Windsor, Ont., over the Detroit River. The new span, first pitched back in 2004, is deemed necessary to alleviate chronic congestion at the nearby Ambassador Bridge, which was erected in 1929 and is now the busiest crossing between Canada and the United States, the world’s biggest trading partners.

Just one problem. The Ambassador Bridge is, unusually, a privately owned and operated crossing, and Michigan’s wealthy Moroun family, headed by 83-year-old Manuel “Matty” Moroun, is fighting tooth and nail to protect the value of its 1979 investment in this key piece of international infrastructure. The reclusive family also owns a trucking empire and huge swaths of property in both Windsor and Detroit, much of which has fallen into disrepair. With the state’s legislature set to vote on the New International Trade Crossing proposal this spring, the Ambassador Bridge’s owners recently launched a US$400,000 ad campaign to convince Michigan voters that a competing, publicly funded bridge would be a huge boondoggle.

To get their point across to legislators, the Morouns also hired Fox News analyst Dick Morris as a lobbyist. Morris, a one-time Clinton adviser who now speaks at Tea Party events, has painted the bridge as yet another case of reckless government spending, which threatens to resonate in a state hit hard by the recession and grappling with a US$1.4-billion budget shortfall. “I’m delighted we have a Republican governor, I just wish he’d act like one,” he said of Snyder during a recent interview with a local Detroit radio station.

In recognition of Michigan’s fiscal troubles, Ottawa has agreed to put up the state’s share of the money for the new bridge, up to US$550 million, which can then be used to secure three-to-one matching funds from Washington—money that can also be used for non-bridge-related expenses such as road maintenance. Canada would be repaid through future road tolls on the new bridge. “This is our best chance to get it done,” says Perrin Beatty, the president of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, who was recently in Michigan speaking to local boards of trade about the project. “The governor of Michigan very early in his term has shown real leadership in this.”

But the Moroun family argues there won’t be enough cross-border traffic to pay for the venture. It says use of the existing bridge has actually declined over the past decade, threatening to leave Michigan taxpayers on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars. The Morouns have instead proposed building—and paying for—a second span adjacent to the aging Ambassador Bridge, which would replace it once it’s completed. It would be much cheaper, at a cost of about US$500 million, and the Morouns claim the money could also be used to trigger federal funding. More importantly, for the Morouns anyway, an additional span alongside the Ambassador would feed into the existing Moroun-owned duty free shops, gas bars and other businesses on the Detroit side.

Canada is steadfastly against the idea of twinning the Ambassador. It has argued that a second span would dramatically increase traffic congestion in downtown Windsor, and that having two bridges beside one another makes for an attractive terrorist target. Proponents of the government-backed bridge have also taken issue with claims about declining cross-border traffic, arguing the drop has more to do with the recent recession and security bottlenecks that emerged following 9/11, as opposed to a permanent drop in trade between the two nations. Some forecasts suggest that, as the economy improves, truck traffic between Windsor and Detroit could more than double over the next three decades.

Hence, it’s little surprise that many cross-border businesses, particularly the auto industry—with its reliance on just-in-time manufacturing—are in favour of building a new bridge. But that hasn’t stopped the Morouns from invoking pro-capitalism rhetoric in their war of words. “It’s a shining example of American prosperity,” Matthew Moroun, Matty’s son, said of the Ambassador in a recent TV interview. “It’s fitting that the bridge that carries that private sector trade also be a model for the private sector.”

Beatty, for one, shakes his head at the Moroun family’s tactics. “Their arguments are preposterous,” he says. “It’s the private sector that’s asking for it to be built.” Besides, he adds, there’s nothing stopping the Moroun family from bidding on private sector contracts to operate the new bridge once it has been completed. “What you have is a monopoly arguing against competition.”


Lots of trouble under the bridge

  1. Hooray, Macleans does a story on the border BUT ignores the dramatic campaign issues that could cause the Government to lose the election. Just go to http://www.windsorsquare.ca and read the BLOG for yourself: "Huge Election Scandal: DRIC Puts Canadian Taxpayers At Risk For Billions."

    Oh Perrin, there is no monopoly and you know it.

    The Governments granted exclusivity to the Bridge Company 80+ years ago and now want to change the rules of the game after Moroun built up the Bridge to be the #1 crossing between Canada and the US.

    How generous of Government, take away most of his business and then let him bid his money to get it back. Must be reverse expropriation.

  2. Canada's so-called $550M loan which is NOT a loan but has to be paid back from tolls that will be insufficient to do so is nothing more than a legally unenforceable 2-page letter that the Governor thinks will help him salvage the financial mess he is in.

    Liberal MP Joe Volpe said this about it: "“They couldn't do it legitimately, they had to do it with a bribe to a state legislature in a foreign country.”

    And Transport Minister Strahl showed what he thought of Michigan in this exchange in the House at Question Period:

    That was a good question, Mr. Speaker. How much money are we going to spend on the new Windsor bridge? We are going to spend zero taxpayer dollars. It is a P3 project. It will not have a single dollar in it.

    • What do you think a loan is. It is a transfer of funds to be repaid at an agreed rate.
      You have it confused with a grant.

  3. Has anybody ever wondered why it takes about four times as long to enter the USA as it takes to enter Cancda at the same boarder crossing, namely Windsor- Detroit? The bridge is not overloaded, it is more often than not a parking lot. The access to the highway system on the American side is miserable,considerably worse than on the Canadian side,which itself is nothing to write home about.
    Delays on American ports of entry are legend; -the are considered to be the worst in the western world.And that not just after 9/11,it was already awful before that. The USA obviously does not care much for tourists; I, for one, avoid going there as much as I can.After waiting an hour or more at a border crossing I do not feel welcomed.And I do not want to impose on someone or a country that shows no sign of welcoming me.

  4. Why hasn't Mr. Moroun already twinned his bridge? Because he has refused to submit the proper applications and ot conform to the legal requirements. Nobody is standing in Mr. Moroun's way except Mr. Moroun's greed and refusal to follow the rules that everyone else is subject to.
    Residents of the neighborhoods in the approaches to the Ambassador Bridge — on both sides of the river — have been subject to noxious, unhealthy, even deadly fumes and diesel exhaust from the trucks using the bridge because those trucks have been forced to idle and to stop-and-go on both sides of the river — 17 stoplights between 401 and the bridge. The proposed Downriver bridge would not subject those vehicles to such stop-and-go situations; the trucks could proceed directly from 401 to the Michigan freeways without impediment, thus doing away with the diesel exhaust currently spewing into the air. Studies have shown diesel exhaust to contribute to, trigger, or worsen such illnesses as asthma, cancer, heart, cardiovascular.and cardiopulmonary diseases, as well as contributing to a high incident of autism.
    The people of Detroit and Windsor want to reclaim their cities and reclaim their right to healthy air. Mr. Moroun's smoke-and-mirrors claims are spurious at best, totally dishonest at worst.
    God bless Canada for standing firm against this modern-day robber baron.

  5. I agree with Fiona below, imagine spending $400000 for an add! these Mouronns should have watched Oprah last week who had a guest who was wealthy and realized how much money do I really need……we need capitalist efficiency and drive but give some back—- and down with ultra wealth—-tax the $@#+ out of them!

  6. excellent story, I agree with Fee