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

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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.”