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Land of the freeloaders: The battle for a new cross-border bridge

Inside Canada’s protracted struggle to build a critical cross-border bridge—and how America got away without paying a penny


 
Built in 1929, the Ambassador Bridge that joins Detroit and Windsor is the busiest international border crossing in North America in terms of trade volume. It is owned by US billionaire "Matty" Maroun. Photograph by Lana Slezic

Built in 1929, the Ambassador Bridge that joins Detroit and Windsor is the busiest international border crossing in North America in terms of trade volume. It is owned by US billionaire “Matty” Maroun. (Photograph by Lana Slezic)

Chapter 1: ‘Roy, get the bridge’

Amid the homey nasal accents of America’s Midwest, Roy Norton’s formal locutions and precise enunciations give him the air of a proper gentleman diplomat of the old school. A one-time foreign policy adviser to Joe Clark, the Ottawa native had cashed in an inheritance to study U.S. politics at Harvard—“a sensible investment.” Next came a Ph.D. in international relations and a diplomatic career that landed him at the Canadian Embassy in Washington. When his name comes up in conversation, it’s often alongside the word “nerd,” a label he embraces proudly.

White-haired at 60, Norton does not seem like the type of guy to launch into public combat with one of the wealthiest men in America or end up in an episode of The Daily Show.

But his life took an unexpected turn in the fall of 2010, when Norton was plucked from Washington and sent to Detroit to serve as Canada’s consul general in Motor City. His orders from Ottawa came by phone. The then minister of foreign affairs, Lawrence Cannon, was brief and urgent. Canada wanted a new crossing between Detroit and Windsor.

“Roy,” Cannon said. “Get. The. Bridge.”

Those words led him on an unprecedented campaign. Instead of genteel advocacy in the halls of the State Department or Congress, it would be political trench warfare in a sprawling and struggling American state. The battle would cost his opponents tens of millions of dollars—and would culminate in a “victory” that now has Canada defiantly undertaking a massive $4-billion infrastructure project whose fate remains unsettled.

To political and diplomatic insiders, the battle over the new bridge is one of the most epic in the annals of modern Canada-U.S. relations. While the Keystone XL pipeline is far more famous, that dispute is a relative blip by comparison.

It is a saga that begins with this insight: the single most important piece of infrastructure between the U.S. and Canada is the majestic Ambassador Bridge, suspended a half-kilometre over the Detroit River. More than a quarter of the $700-billion annual trade between our two nations crosses here—between 8,000 and 10,000 trucks every day. It is a crucial link in the North American auto industry whose supply chains span both countries. But the Ambassador Bridge is also 86 years old and in need of repairs. Last summer, chunks of its concrete crumbled and dented a car parked below.

The Ambassador Bridge is remarkable in another way: it is privately owned. It belongs to the Detroit International Bridge Co., a company owned by one man: a reclusive, 87-year-old billionaire named Manuel “Matty” Moroun, who has been battling successive Canadian governments over control of the Detroit-Windsor link since the 1970s, when he first announced he would buy the old bridge.

“When I got to Washington,” says Canada’s ambassador in Washington, Gary Doer, “I heard about the president of the United States, the secretary of defence, I heard about the foreign minister, secretary of state—and then I heard about Matty Moroun. I was coming down here and talking about the bridge, the first response I got was: ‘You’ll never get it past the owner of the existing bridge. You’ll never get it done. Good luck to ya.’ ”

For years, successive Canadian governments tried to strike a deal with the Americans to jointly invest in building a new crossing. In February, the Harper government gave up and made an extraordinary announcement: Canada would build a new, roughly $4-billion bridge benefiting the economies on both sides of the river, but without any financial participation from the state of Michigan or the U.S. government. The Canadian government and Ontario are splitting the $1.6-billion cost of a direct highway connection to the new bridge in Ontario. The rest—a new bridge span, highway interchanges in Michigan, and new massive customs and immigration plazas in both countries—will be built by a Crown corporation, financed by expected toll revenue. Any shortfall will be covered by taxpayer dollars—Canadian taxpayer dollars alone. In short, Canada has promised the United States a free bridge.


 

Clarence Tabb, Jr./Detroit News/AP

Matty Moroun, whose family business has owned the Ambassador Bridge since 1979. (Clarence Tabb, Jr./Detroit News/AP)

Chapter 2: ‘The only way things can be done’

Canadians are often surprised to learn that their most important international crossing is privately owned. The reason is simple: back in the roaring 1920s, governments would not pay to build it, but private capital would. According to historian Philip P. Mason’s authoritative history, The Ambassador Bridge: A Monument to Progress, the great Michigan automakers wanted to connect the Midwest to central Canada, but neither Ontario nor Michigan would pay for a river crossing. So the businessmen created a bridge company.

The project was troubled: A Toronto financier hired to sell its securities instead stole the money, ran off and ultimately committed suicide in a jail cell after being convicted of murdering a drugstore clerk. The bridge boosters turned to Joseph A. Bower, a New Yorker who specialized in rescuing mismanaged companies. Bower succeeded in raising the necessary $12 million. “The only way things can be done today,” said Henry Ford, who backed the project, “is by private business.”

The notion of private ownership for such a crucial piece of infrastructure was alarming to political leaders from the start. The mayor of Detroit, John Smith, sued to stop the project, but Detroit held a plebiscite in 1927, and voters favoured letting private funds build and own the bridge by a margin of 8 to 1. “I bow to the will of the people,” said mayor Smith. “They want a bridge and they must have a bridge.”

Construction began later that year, and the bridge was opened to the public on Nov. 11, 1929—just in time for the Great Depression. Tolls did not cover costs. The bridge company was headed for bankruptcy. Bower came up with a new plan to save the company: bondholders were turned into shareholders, and in 1939 the company was listed on the New York Stock Exchange. And so it remained for half a century until Matty Moroun came along.

Moroun was not some anonymous Wall Street billionaire swooping in to scoop up a lucrative asset. His personal life story was intertwined with all that undulating steel. Moroun’s grandparents had come from Lebanon and settled in Windsor. As the bridge went up, the Moroun family home was torn down to make way for construction. The family moved to Detroit, where Matty was born in 1927. His father settled on the east side of the city, and opened two service stations where Matty worked from a young age.

“I did whatever a gas station pumper did. I checked the oil, checked the tires, checked out the back seat, the front seat,” the reclusive Moroun told the Michigan business magazine Corp!, in a rare interview in 2009. Moroun aspired to be a doctor and attended Catholic school where a nun encouraged him to apply to a prestigious prep school, the University of Detroit Jesuit High School. “I came from humble beginnings, a slum area more or less. The son of an Arab gas station owner,” he later told Detroit journalist Charlie LeDuff. His new classmates were the scions of auto magnates, including a vice-president of General Motors. “Christ, he drove a new Cadillac to school every week. All the kids had new cars. Christ, I had a streetcar and a bus, that’s how I got to school. It made me feel I was very inadequate. I felt inadequate. Not up to the deal.”

But Moroun’s family was climbing. In 1946, his father bought a bus company, Central Cartage. Matty came home each weekend to help run the company while attending university 300 km away. He recalled falling asleep eating dinner.

ShutterstockFather and son grew the bus company into a trucking concern, then known as Central Transport and now Centra Inc. It gradually became a transportation empire that now includes trucking lines, customs brokerages, duty-free retail and insurance. By 2014, Moroun’s fortune was worth US$1.7 billion, making him the 373rd wealthiest person in America, according to Forbes magazine.

The bridge was an important part of that success. After the 1965 Auto Pact between Canada and the U.S. ushered in free trade for auto parts, cross-border shipments increased. The Morouns were running more and more trucks across the bridge and began to think about buying it. But they weren’t the only suitors. Legendary investor Warren Buffett bought up a quarter of the shares in the bridge. But in 1979, the Morouns bought out Buffett along with all other investors and took the company private.

It was a sweet moment for Moroun. Among the documents that came with his purchase of the Detroit International Bridge Co.—and its Canadian subsidiary, the Canadian Transit Co.—was the deed to his grandfather’s former house in Windsor. Moroun, who now lives in a waterfront mansion in Grosse Pointe Shores, proudly gave it back to his father.

But from the moment that Moroun announced his intention to buy the Canadian and American companies that together made up the Ambassador Bridge, he had one problem: Canada. The Liberal government of Pierre Elliott Trudeau declared that international bridges should be constructed and operated “by an authority that is genuinely public in its character” and comprised equally of Canadians and Americans.

There was no room in this vision for a private American owner of the single most important cross-border bridge. Ottawa demanded that the Canadian half of the bridge be conveyed back to the federal government, saying they would permit Moroun to lease it back for 25 years. The Trudeau government also enacted the Foreign Investment Review Act, which said a Canadian business could only be sold to foreigners if it was found to be of “significant benefit to Canada.” Moroun argued that Ottawa had had ample opportunity to buy the bridge on the stock market, just as he had. A decade of acrimonious litigation followed. Finally, just as Canada was preparing to enter into the North American Free Trade Agreement, both sides entered into a settlement agreement. The Canadian government agreed to recognize Moroun’s ownership of the bridge, and his company agreed to make the bridge “a model facility border crossing.”

In this brief period of co-operation, both Canada and the U.S. undertook to improve the highway systems in both countries. Moroun expected that Canada would connect Ontario’s Highway 401 directly to the foot of the Ambassador Bridge. But it never happened.

Instead, beginning in the early 2000s, a binational study group came up with a plan to build a new, alternative bridge with dedicated truck lanes, wide shoulders, and safety features. Canada’s interest grew after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when the border was shut down and thousands of trucks were stuck on the Windsor roads and for miles up Highway 401. It was a stark demonstration of how crippling it would be if there were a long-term problem with the Ambassador Bridge—especially in an era of “just-in-time” inventory systems.

Paul Cellucci, then U.S. ambassador to Canada, told the Windsor Star in February 2005 that Washington wanted a quick approval for the new bridge plan and that costs would be a “50-50 split.” It would not be so simple.


Photograph by Lana Slezic

Houses in the Detroit neighbourhood of Delray. (Photograph by Lana Slezic)

Chapter 3: The 18 traffic lights

Out of 15 options, planners picked a spot a mere three kilometres away from the existing Ambassador Bridge for the “New International Trade Crossing.” For Moroun, the idea of a competing bridge next door was a major threat. When the new bridge is built, Moroun’s company later argued in legal documents, “the viability of the Ambassador Bridge will be jeopardized.”

They also saw a continuation of the Trudeau-era imperiousness. “They don’t have any financial motives, really—it’s more nationalistic,” Matty Moroun’s son, Matthew Moroun, now the vice-chairman of the company, said in 2011: “Some folks, not all, have a problem with paying an American-owned business every time they want to cross into our country.”

The Morouns had their own alternative plan: if a new bridge was needed, well, they would build it and own it, too. Specifically, they offered to use their own money to “twin” the old, four-lane bridge, building a separate span of six lanes next to it. A twin span would allow for easier maintenance and repairs on the old bridge, they said.

But the Moroun twinning plan faced its own challenge: downtown Windsor. Truckers have long complained that after cruising down interstate highways from Miami and crossing the bridge, they must stop at 18 traffic lights—all of them in downtown Windsor. Ontario’s Highway 401 stops 12 km short of the foot of the bridge, squeezing international tractor-trailers into a stretch of Huron Church Road dotted with red lights.

Residents like it even less. “Imagine all of a sudden you have 10,000 trucks in your backyard. You can no longer live with your windows open. You can no longer use your home or your backyard. You’ve got 10,000 trucks spewing diesel fuel, you’ve got 10,000 trucks stopping and going, revving up their engines, clamping down on their air brakes,” says Eddie Francis, who was embroiled in litigation with the Morouns before he stepped down as Windsor’s long-time mayor last November.

Moreover, a twinned Ambassador Bridge would require construction of a massive new customs plaza, levelling a chunk of downtown and part of a historical neighborhood called Sandwich, says Francis. The Morouns argued the bridge could be connected to the highway, but Ottawa and Windsor disagreed. “All feasible road access options to the Ambassador Bridge were examined and all of them were found to have high negative impacts,” the federal government concluded. When Ottawa ruled out a twinned bridge, the Morouns sued in the Federal Court of Canada, alleging bias. The court found the government’s decision reasonable, and an appeals court upheld the ruling. Likewise, a federal court in the U.S. found that the government had a “reasoned basis” to conclude that a twinned span “did not meet the need for system connectivity, redundancy, capacity, or economic security need.”

Nonetheless, the Morouns pushed forward with their twinning plan, buying up single-family homes adjacent to the existing bridge, and boarding them up. “They’ve crept into the neighbourhoods and into the communities, purchasing up properties to the point whereby nobody will stand in their way and they’ll own all the homes and they’ll say, ‘Well, what would you rather have? Boarded-up homes or a 50-acre customs plaza?’ ” says Francis. The city council demanded that the bridge company rehabilitate the houses; the Morouns responded by deploying lawyers.

The Morouns have argued that a new bridge should not be built because there won’t be enough traffic to support two viable businesses, so one bridge company will have to fail. When the idea of building the new bridge was first proposed, traffic was booming and looked as though it would grow forever.

But commercial traffic declined after 9/11 and took three years to recover. It declined again in the wake of the 2007-09 recession. It has yet to catch up. Nine million cars and trucks crossed the Ambassador Bridge in 2007, but by 2014, the number was down to seven million. Still, the Canadian government believes that if they build it, traffic will come—and that without a more efficient new crossing, manufacturing will decline. Confronted with the idea that Canadian taxpayers will be on the hook if their predictions of growing traffic turn out to be wrong, they argue that taxpayers in the end will not be harmed because the toll revenue will eventually cover the costs.

Photograph by Lana Slezic

Photograph by Lana Slezic

Brad Williams, vice-president of the Detroit Regional Chamber, which counts automakers as members, calls the proposed second bridge “the most impactful economic development project in my lifetime.” The Canadian government, meanwhile, calculated that the new bridge would take between 35 per cent and 50 per cent of the traffic that currently pay tolls to the Morouns. The hit to their business would likely be greater than that: In addition to collecting tolls, the Morouns also profit from a Duty Free Store and a duty-free gas station frequented by bridge-crossers. “We’re probably talking about more than $100 million in revenues on a bridge that is paid for. If they lose half their traffic and half their revenue, it’s still going to be profitable,” says Norton, the diplomat. “But they want it all.”

The Morouns don’t consider themselves monopolists. After all, they compete with the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel for passenger cars and with the Blue Water Bridge, between Sarnia and Port Huron, 100 km away, for long-haul truck traffic. “They’re trying to steal our trucks all the time,” Matthew Moroun told Corp!. “And we’re trying to steal theirs.”

Matty Moroun is devoted to his business. Even in his 80s, he worked six days a week and made personal visits to the Duty Free Shop to make sure the T-shirts were stacked neatly. He is also notoriously media shy. Matty Moroun gave a rare on-camera interview to Detroit’s Fox 2 News in 2011 in which he complained of his treatment by the media.

“I am a quiet, private man,” Moroun said. “But someone decided to make me something other than private. I didn’t. I went through 80 years without being anything but Matty Moroun. Now I’m being vilified for the last five years or so.”

The Morouns had initially agreed to be interviewed by Maclean’s, but then declined to comment.


 

TYLER BROWNBRIDGE/The Windsor Star

The site of the proposed Gordie Howe Bridge connecting Windsor and Detroit. (Tyler Brownbridge/The Windsor Star)

Chapter 4: Mr. Baird goes to Lansing

Under U.S. law, the fate of the new bridge was in the hands of Michigan. Although Michigan’s trade with Canada is worth $70 billion, Canada quickly learned it had little clout in Michigan’s neo-classical domed legislature in the state capital of Lansing—while Matty Moroun had a lot.

“Every year the Moroun family and their hired guns in Lansing would try and persuade the legislature to pull funding from the study project and kill it in its infancy,” says Brad Williams, who worked in the Michigan department of transportation. Finally, in 2009, Michigan’s then governor, Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat, embraced the bridge and put it into her budget proposal.

The timing could not have been worse.

In the wake of the financial crisis, the state was in economic disarray. The auto industry had collapsed and had to be bailed out by taxpayers. Over 789,000 jobs were lost. Detroit was heading for bankruptcy.

“It was terrible,” recalls Republican state Sen. John Pappageorge, who opposed the bridge plan. “If you were in the budgeting business, it was like sitting on a hill full of dynamite trying to stamp out the shortest fuse first.” The Republican majority in Lansing opposed the plan.

SOCIAL SELLS_MAC21_21Meanwhile, Canada was getting nervous. An engineering inspection report said the Ambassador Bridge was in overall “fair” condition while it found the main span in “poor condition,” with cracked, unsound concrete. (The company sued to keep the report secret, but has since been making repairs.)

Back in Ottawa, John Baird, then transport minister, had given up hope that Michigan would ever share the costs. With the state legislature facing a deadline to approve Granholm’s proposal, Baird urged cabinet to take responsibility for the whole thing—including $550 million for highway construction on Michigan’s side. “Basically he said to my colleagues and I: ‘We need to do this, we have to get this done, this piece of infrastructure is our No. 1 project in Canada,’ ” recalls Lisa Raitt, now minister of transport.

Canada would finance and build the project through public-private partnership. The only piece remaining for the U.S. taxpayers under Baird’s plan would be $250 million for a U.S. Customs Plaza on the American side of the crossing—on Washington’s dime. Once Canada’s bills were paid off, Ottawa would share the tolls with Michigan for the remaining life of the bridge—a potential $3-billion to $4-billion long-term windfall for Michigan, according to Canadian officials.

On April 29, 2010, Baird informed Granholm by letter that given “the importance to the economic security and future prosperity of both countries,” he was “pleased” to inform that Canada would increase its financial participation.

Brad Williams, by then a lobbyist for the Detroit Regional Chamber, was at the state capital in a committee hearing on the bridge when the governor burst in. “All of a sudden in hustled governor Granholm in a hurry. She sat down at the testimony table and said something to the effect of: ‘Mr. Chairman, I have some very important news to share with you.’ ” Granholm read aloud Baird’s letter to a stunned committee room. “It really was a game-changer,” he says.

The president of the Morouns’ company, Dan Stamper, responded with a letter that argued that tolls would be insufficient to support the bridge. He called on Canada to simply connect the Ambassador Bridge to the highways. “Canada. Fix your roads with your money,” it stated. “Stop pressuring Michigan to spend money it doesn’t have on a bridge it doesn’t need. DON’T MAKE CANADA’S ROADS MICHIGAN’S PROBLEM!!!”

He also accused the governor, who had been born in Vancouver, of having “offered to sell the Michigan border to Canada.”

It was only a taste of the combat to come.

Things initially looked promising for Ottawa’s “game-changing” offer. In May 2010, the Michigan House of Representatives, controlled by Granholm’s Democratic Party, passed a bill authorizing the creation of a private-public partnership to build the bridge. But the Republicans who controlled the state Senate said they feared Michigan taxpayers would end up on the hook.

“It’s not a question of whether you trust or don’t trust somebody’s word,” says Pappageorge, the Republican state senator who opposed the project. “It’s a question of: is the risk so high the promise can’t be kept?”

Photograph by Lana Slezic

Photograph by Lana Slezic

Meanwhile, Michigan was gearing up for the November 2010 elections. Moroun and his immediate family spent $1.5 million on political contributions to state and congressional candidates in Michigan, according to calculations by the Detroit Free Press. If they had been combined into one entity, it would have been the largest single corporate donor in Michigan, the newspaper reported.

The Morouns were also busy launching a variety of lawsuits against the U.S., Canadian and Windsor governments. In court cases and a pending NAFTA challenge, they argued that the original agreement between the U.S. and Canada to build the Ambassador Bridge gave its owners the exclusive right to build, operate, maintain and collect tolls from a bridge at or near Windsor to the opposite side of the river in Michigan. They also alleged that Canada was unfairly biased in favour of the government project, and against their private one.

The Canadian government had trouble finding a major law firm in Detroit that didn’t already do business with the bridge owners. Eventually, they hired lawyers from Grand Rapids, some 260 km away, according to Norton. Finally on Sept. 16, 2010, the majority leader in the state Senate, Mike Bishop, announced that there would be no vote in the Senate after all. “There are so many legal issues involved that I am sure there is no way to get a [bridge] issue in this budget cycle,” Bishop told the Gongwer News Service. “It’s just too complicated.” By refusing to bring the measure for a vote, Bishop had single-handedly killed the deal. Even if Canada put up the money, the project still needed authorization and the state government’s power to expropriate land, if necessary.

The Morouns were large donors to Bishop’s political campaigns and political committees. Their contributions were perfectly legal, but Granholm expressed outrage: “It’s Exhibit A for why Michigan needs campaign finance reform,” she said.

Williams, the Chamber lobbyist who had been trying to get a new bridge built for almost a decade, said he went home that night, collapsed on his couch, and told his wife, “So much of my life that has just gone down the drain.”

Photograph by Lana Slezic

Roy Norton, the former Canadian consul in Detroit. (Photograph by Lana Slezic)

Chapter 5: One tough nerd

It was into this moment of paralysis that Roy Norton landed in Detroit in the fall of 2010, bearing Cannon’s orders to “get the bridge.” The race to replace governor Granholm did not bode well for Canada. The new Democratic candidate openly opposed a new bridge and supported Moroun’s idea of twinning the old bridge. Most of the contenders for the Republican nomination were conservatives who also sided with the private bridge. But the right-wing vote split and the Republican nomination went to the lone moderate in the race: Rick Snyder, a largely self-funded former technology executive whose position on the bridge was vague. Snyder was elected governor in November 2010.

The next month, before he was sworn in, Canada’s then transport minister Chuck Strahl went to see Snyder, accompanied by Norton. The scheduled 30-minute gathering turned into three hours, as the Canadians pressed the case that a new bridge would cost the state of Michigan nothing. Norton and Snyder discovered they were kindred spirits: it turned out that Snyder’s Twitter handle is @onetoughnerd. The Canadians left the meeting confident that it had gone well—but they had no idea just how well.

A few weeks later, the new Republican governor delivered his first “state of the state” speech to the legislature and enthusiastically championed the bridge. “This new bridge will create jobs, strengthen our economy and help establish Michigan as a hub for global commerce,” Snyder said. Republican lawmakers, including leaders in the state House and Senate, and the media, were blindsided. “We figured the bridge issue was behind us,” says Sen. Pappageorge.

“It was like dropping a bomb, says Scott Hagerstrom, head of the Michigan chapter of the conservative activist group, Americans for Prosperity, which opposed the new bridge. “Because the Republicans had a super-majority in the Senate, they had a huge majority in the House, and they controlled the governor’s office, and this had been something that consistently Republicans had opposed.”

Norton credited Baird’s decision to swallow the costs. “I doubt that the new governor would have bought into the project had there not been the Canadian guarantee that this would cost the state nothing.”

Snyder tells Maclean’s in an interview that the decision was easy. “When I was campaigning, I didn’t take a position because I hadn’t done my homework. There were a lot of other issues going on. Michigan was in terrible economic times. So after I won, I got all the information from all sides and sat down and it was really compelling,” Snyder says. “It’s not a tough decision at all when you look at the facts.”

Like Granholm before him, Snyder again proposed legislation to authorize the new bridge. Again, the bridge owners fought back—this time, with a multi-million-dollar television ad campaign attacking the bridge as costly and unnecessary. “The special interests and contractors want the money. Snyder wants a monument. We need our local roads and bridges fixed. Call your legislators today and tell them, ‘Fix our local roads,’ ” said a 30-second spot in 2011.

Some ads referred to a “$2-billion bridge” that would cost Michigan taxpayers $100 million per year. “They are going around picking numbers out of thin air. The true number is zero. It will cost Michigan zero,” says Norton.

Incensed, the Canadian diplomat began to take a higher profile. He appeared before a legislative committee in Lansing. He also made a formal presentation to Detroit city council, alongside the state lieutenant governor. The state government, run by white Republicans, was not popular with the city council, made up exclusively of African American Democrats. So Norton refined his pitch: Moroun’s twinning plan, he told the council, would destroy the Windsor neighbourhood which had been the terminus of the Underground Railroad for African Americans escaping slavery. Councillors voted unanimously to endorse the bridge proposal.

But the Moroun ads were having an impact. By the fall of 2011, a majority of Michiganders opposed the new bridge. And the state legislature dug in. The Morouns were spending big money, including a $100,000 contribution to the Michigan Republican Party. (Lawmakers who championed the new bridge also spread money to their colleagues through political committees.)

Pappageorge bristles at the suggestion that contributions from the Morouns made any difference to his views. “I got more money from people who want the [new] bridge than I did from anybody who doesn’t,” says Pappageorge. “I’m not for sale. And I don’t think my colleagues are either.”

But there was another obstacle, too. Democratic lawmakers didn’t just want a new bridge. They also wanted benefits for the community where the new project would land. And they abstained from voting on legislation that did not include it. While Canada had been fighting in Lansing, back on the blighted Detroit waterfront, another battle was brewing.

Photograph by Lana Slezic

Beonka Brooks, who lives in Detroit’s Delray neighbourhood and whose family is one of the 250 who would be displaced by the bridge. (Photograph by Lana Slezic)

“This used to be a funeral home,” says Pastor Kevin Casillas, pointing to a boarded-up, graffiti-covered building across the street from his First Latin American Baptist Church, on the corner of Dragoon and Fort streets in Delray, a historic Detroit neighbourhood. Canada’s new bridge would land here, on this semi-industrial waterfront southwest of the Ambassador Bridge. Streets are lined with defunct factories and dotted with charred husks of burned-out houses. But amidst the blight, a low-income community, teeming with families, carries on—and swaths of their neighbourhood will be torn down to make way for the interchange that will connect Canada’s proposed new bridge to Interstate 75, and for the 70-hectare customs plaza.

Community activists count 250 families that will have to move, and another 2,000 families will remain to carry on their lives in the shadow of the new bridge. Businesses will be relocated, along with Casillas’s church. These are costs that will be rolled into Canada’s project.

Beonka Brooks has lived here 45 years and she will have to move, too. Her house is one of only two left standing on a block that once had 40 or 50 houses. What was once a recreation centre nearby is now reduced to heaps of rubble after thieves tore out the metal for scrap. “We just want positive development to happen here,” says Scott Brines, chairman of Southwest Detroit Community Benefits Coalition, a group representing residents. They support the bridge project—but asked for legal guarantees of benefits for residents, such as set-aside jobs, green spaces, pollution and noise-abatement measures, and restricted routes for heavy trucks. They also want assurances that pedestrians would be able to access services, such as a health clinic, once the area is bisected by new construction. Canada says benefits will be included when the project goes to bidders. “They certainly will get green spaces. They will certainly get jobs,” says Norton. But residents, and their political representatives, wanted more—legal guarantees they can enforce in court. Neither Michigan nor Canada would go that far.

Paul Sancya/AP

Gary Doer, Lisa Raitt and Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder announce the new bridge. (Paul Sancya/AP)

Chapter 6: Taking off the gloves

With Canada’s bridge dead in the legislature, the Morouns had a plan to make sure it would not rise again. In April 2012, they announced that they would seek the extraordinary step of an amendment to Michigan’s highest law—the state constitution—to require a public referendum on any new international bridge project. Under their proposal, a new bridge would have to be approved by a majority of voters in the district where the bridge would be located, as well as a state-wide majority—a daunting task. They started collecting signatures to put the proposal on the ballot in November 2012, and named their effort, “The people should decide.” “We believe such a decision should require the vote of the people,” explained Matthew Moroun. Supporters of a new crossing concluded that it would spell doom for the project. “We were flabbergasted,” says Williams.

The Morouns got their proposal on the ballot and launched another round of TV ads estimated to cost $40 million. “You couldn’t turn on the TV without seeing a commercial. It was crazy,” recalls Williams.

Back in Washington, ambassador Gary Doer had worked to secure a waiver from Buy American requirements so that Canadian steel in addition to U.S. steel could be used in the bridge construction. But television ads claimed the bridge would be built with Chinese steel. The ads worried even Stephen Harper. “The Prime Minister had commented on ads he witnessed on TV—I’m sure it must have been at a hockey game—and he wanted to know whether that would have any impact on the plebiscite,“ recalls Doer. “He was very personally involved. This was a priority he had established.”

The Morouns also had a passionate ally. The small-government Tea Party movement and Hagerstrom’s group, Americans for Prosperity, plunged into the bridge fight against the Canada-backed “government bridge.” Created in 2004 by the libertarian billionaire political donors Charles and David Koch, the group championed free enterprise, small government and private property rights. By 2014, Hagerstrom’s group claimed some 90,000 activists. “They saw that traffic was down more than 40 per cent and that the governor was pushing to spend taxpayer dollars on a new bridge when a new bridge just wasn’t needed,” he says. His group held town halls around the state, radio ads, and mailed brochures attacking the bridge project as corporate welfare. “It was a huge issue,” says Hagerstrom. “And it symbolized waste.”

Canada’s pledge of a “free” bridge had not softened their opposition. “It would still cost Michigan taxpayers money,” says Hagerstrom. His argument was that the U.S. federal government would have to spend $250 million to build a customs plaza, plus staff and maintain it later, so a share of that would come from Michigan taxpayers.

The $33.5-million campaign in favour of the ballot proposal was funded almost entirely by the Morouns’ bridge company, according to figures compiled by the Michigan Campaign Finance Network. A group of opponents, calling itself Taxpayers Against Monopolies, raised a far smaller amount: $1.8 million from donors including General Motors, Chrysler, and the Alliance of Auto Manufacturers.

But the “tough nerd” governor wasn’t done yet. As the Morouns moved forward with their plan to bury the bridge for good, Snyder hatched an equally bold plan to save it. The legislature’s approval had been necessary in order to appropriate taxpayer funds. But if Michigan was not kicking in any money, the governor and his lawyers concluded he had the executive power to authorize the bridge under his constitutional authority to enter into “inter-local agreements” with other governments, including Canada’s.

A spokesman for the Morouns’ company called Snyder’s unilateral move “an affront to not only the legislative process but to the residents of Michigan.” Snyder was now taking a major risk. “The governor was going out on a limb,” says Hagerstrom. “He was going to do it alone.”

But Snyder wasn’t quite alone. Back in Washington, Doer worked to secure a necessary presidential permit for cross-border infrastructure and a bridge-building permit from the U.S. Coast Guard. And it was at this moment that Roy Norton took the fight to the Morouns. “They are not a government. They don’t speak for the people of Michigan. They speak for their own private interest,” says Norton. “We don’t think they deserve to exercise a veto.”

Gov. Snyder had embarked on a bus tour of the state. Roy Norton launched a tour of his own. Norton criss-crossed the vast state of Michigan in a tan, Canadian-made 2007 Mercury Marquis, to spread the gospel of the new bridge. He often appeared at the same stage with Snyder, whom he praised as a “courageous leader,” a “visionary leader,” and “incorruptible.” And he stunned observers by taking on the Morouns so bluntly. “Nobody in Michigan, it seemed, was ever prepared to take them on,” says Norton. “Everyone is oh-so-careful and apprehensive about the implications.”

Norton says the Moroun ads implied that Her Majesty’s Government was lying to the people of Michigan about the costs of the bridge. “The Government of Canada and its integrity were being maligned by the owner of the Ambassador Bridge. So we had legitimate reason to be involved in this particular campaign,” he says. Norton was unapologetic about his undiplomatic tone. “That’s exactly what the Ambassador Bridge folks are counting on—that the rest of us will play by so-called marquis of Queensberry rules while they peddle their lies,” he told an August 2012 luncheon of the Regional Chamber of Commerce in Ann Arbor, according to the Ann Arbor News. “Not just lies—big lies. The absolute-opposite-of-the-truth lies. Lies repeatedly told, however, with such elegance and simplicity that many voters believe they must be true.”

In a speech to the Southern Wayne County Chamber in October 2012, he called the bridge owners “scoundrels” who should be “ashamed of themselves.” Norton spoke to community groups; to chambers of commerce, accounting firms, law firms, auto companies and trucking associations, to name just a few. He spoke at almost every university in Michigan—some several times. No audience was too small or too out of the way for Norton.

The minister’s exhortation to “get the bridge” had become the organizing principle of his life, he says. “I was able to get up every morning thinking about how to address my day in terms of delivering on that goal,” says Norton. “And yes, I threw myself into it. I tend to be obsessive with these sorts of things, and I am a bit of a workaholic.”

He put some 30,000 km on the car.

“I think Roy is the most popular Canadian in Detroit this side of Gordie Howe,” says Williams. “He was willing to take the gloves off and throw a few punches.”

Norton got carte blanche to talk to U.S. media. In the fall of 2012 when The Daily Show came calling, Norton gamely sat down with comedian Al Madrigal, who acted theatrically unconvinced that Canada would give American a “free bridge” and repeatedly asked a studiously stone-faced Norton to “Define zero” and “Define nothing—again.” Turning to a man in a Tea Party T-shirt who called the bridge a “Trojan horse,” Madrigal asked: “You think they’re going to hide a bunch of Canadians in there that are going to jump out and attack us once the bridge is complete?” Replied the Tea Partier: “No, it’s not going to be Canadians. It’s going to be Chinamen.”

On June 15, 2012, Harper and Snyder entered into an agreement to build the bridge. Harper pronounced it “Canada’s No. 1 infrastructure priority.”

On Nov. 6, 2012, came another victory for Canada: Michigan voters rejected the Morouns’ constitutional amendment by a vote of 59 per cent to 41 per cent. The bridge owners had spent a record sum on a state ballot campaign, outspending their foes by more than 40 to 1. Nonetheless, Canada’s bridge finally looked like it was moving ahead.

But Moroun, who still owned land in the footprint of the future customs plaza, and was readying additional legal challenges, had a warning for Canada. “I don’t think it’s possible for them to build another bridge,” he told Detroit’s Fox 2 News. “They’ve got too many problems. Too many problems. They’re almost insurmountable.”

On July 30, 2014, Snyder joined Transport Minister Lisa Raitt at the historic riverfront Canadian Club Heritage Center in Windsor, to announce that the project was pushing ahead to completion in 2020. Ottawa had allocated $631 million in the 2014 budget to get the project rolling.

Raitt announced the creation of a Crown corporation, the Windsor-Detroit Bridge Authority, to oversee the day-to-day building and operation of the bridge, including choosing the private company that would build and run it.

Photograph by Lana Slezic

Scott Brines, who lives in Detroit’s Delray neighbourhood, and who will be displaced by the new bridge. (Photograph by Lana Slezic)

But several issues remained unresolved. One was the promised benefits for the residents of Delray. Two days before Raitt’s triumphant press conference, Detroit city council was expected to approve the sale of city-owned land for the project. Things didn’t go as planned. Inside Detroit’s impressive marble-clad tower, the Coleman A. Young Municipal Building, with its airport levels of security, residents implored councillors for legal guarantees of benefits for the community.

“Downtrodden and forgotten—secondary citizens is basically what we’ve been for so many years,” Delray resident Cedric Jones told the council. Kevin Casillas, the pastor, said vague promises were not enough. “This uncertainty does not protect the very people who will sacrifice the most for this project.”

“Please do it for the kids,” said state Sen. Rashida Tlaib, a Democrat who had championed the neighbourhood’s issues. “There are tons of children who are going to be left behind to sit across from this plaza that’s 160 acres.”

The result was months of delay until the land was finally approved for sale, with promises of benefits for residents—but still no legal guarantees.

Meanwhile, neither the Obama administration nor the U.S. Congress were showing signs of coughing up $250 million for a customs plaza on the U.S. side. The bridge could not open without it.

Finally, Ottawa gave up waiting on Washington. “We couldn’t get capital appropriation and we believe the Michigan delegation also felt the shadow of Matty Moroun over that decision,” says Doer. In February 2015, Raitt announced that Canada would cover those costs too, to be repaid through tolls.

The prospect of a foreign country paying for American infrastructure did not sit well with everyone. “As an American, I think it’s embarrassing that we can’t fund our own infrastructure and I think it’s equally embarrassing that we’re asking Canada to foot the bill and then when it’s all over and paid for we want half of it,” says Gregg Ward, owner of a ferry service that carries trucks bearing hazardous goods across the river because they aren’t allowed on the Ambassador Bridge. Ward says he supports a new bridge with safety enhancements, even though it would put him out of business. “None of us own the traffic; we’re providing a public service and if there’s a newer and better way to do it for the greater good, that’s what we should be doing,” he says.

Photograph by Lana Slezic

Photograph by Lana Slezic

After more than a decade of trying, Ottawa was finally getting its way by shouldering everything related to the two-nation project. “Our trade relationship will always be more important to Canada than the United States,” says Aaron Wudrick, federal director for the Canadian Taxpayers Federation. “So the danger is that a precedent is set where the Americans realize that any time we need to embark on a joint project for joint infrastructure that they know that by holding out Canada will always be the one to put the money on the table instead.”

While Ottawa emphasized the money would be recouped by tolls, others had concerns about the structure of the deal. “The public-private partnership model has a component of profit in it,” notes Brian Masse, the NDP MP from Windsor. “So we’re adding a layer of cost into the equation that will have to be borne by those using the actual border crossing.”

The saga of the bridge—as well as that of the Keystone XL pipeline battle—has led to calls for an overhaul of the way the two countries approach cross-border infrastructure.

“At present, attention to cross-border infrastructure is a function of how effective members of congress on the northern border are at persuading their counterparts, not a function of what infrastructure makes sense and what the priorities are,” says Chris Sands, a specialist in cross-border affairs at the Hudson Institute in Washington. Business groups have proposed everything from a bilateral infrastructure commission to an infrastructure development bank, but they’ve gone nowhere.

Meanwhile, the Morouns continue to work toward twinning their own bridge. They were stymied by the denial of a U.S. Coast Guard permit for the new bridge because they had no secured air rights over a local park. In April, they reached a deal with Detroit’s mayor, Mike Duggan, for a land swap that would give them several acres of undeveloped park land in exchange for $5 million in improvements to the riverfront and to the Michigan Central Station, a decayed landmark they own. The new land rights could eventually help ease their way to a permit. The mayor says he supports both bridge projects. They are also expected to fight any attempt by the government to expropriate land they own in the footprint of the plaza.

For his part in the saga, diplomat Roy Norton was awarded an Award of Excellence for Engagement and Collaboration by the Department of Foreign Affairs, and took a new posting in Chicago. “There is a sense of achievement,” he says.

Lisa Raitt continues pushing doggedly ahead. “We’re going to build this bridge,” she says in an interview. “There’s nothing that can stop it.” Last week, Harper and Snyder announced the future bridge would be named the Gordie Howe International Bridge, after the hockey great who led the Detroit Red Wings to four Stanley Cup victories “building extraordinary goodwill between our two countries.” Explained Harper: “It is my sincere hope that this bridge, which bears his name, will continue this proud legacy.”

But back in Washington, Canada’s ambassador is more cautious. “There is an old saying—and maybe Gordie Howe would use this term—that’s appropriate for this bridge, that you don’t put your hands in the air until the puck is in the net,” says Doer.


 

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