The Second Detroit-Canada Span: A brewing battle

Rod Meloni discusses Michigan, Canada agreement to build new bridge, dissent from Ambassador Bridge company

By Rod Meloni - Reporter, CFP ®

WINDSOR, Ontario - Governor Rick Snyder is never without his favorite bromide: "Positive forward progress."

He used it again today in Windsor, Ontario, Canada as he and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper put on a highly choreographed set of presentations. Snyder said the region needs to move on to a new era, that the time has come to move on from the rickety, 80 year old Ambassador Bridge. He maligned the legendary span, once owned by legendary billionaire Warren Buffett, as the worst trade choke point in the Pan American freeway system. In looking at the Governor's thinking it's much like that of Mike Ilitch when it was obvious old Tiger Stadium was so long in the tooth there was no salvaging it. Ilitch went and built spacious Comerica Park and few who go to games there truly pine for the old stadium's poor sightlines and old bandbox feel.

Yet the fight Ilitch experienced extricating himself from a crumbling stadium was difficult. Many who held the old ballpark near and dear fought with the strength of tigers to try and stop the move and even after Comerica opened fought to keep the decrepit old and historic ball yard standing. Today what was [Briggs and] Tiger Stadium is an empty sand lot waiting for new development. Governor Rick Snyder is going to face a similar fight. It won't be with volunteers who loved the old place; no he's going to war with the billionaire who bought the Ambassador Bridge from Buffett. He's perhaps the most hated man in Metro Detroit; Matty Moroun. Now Snyder is already braced for it, he told me earlier in the week he knows what's coming and fully expects a battle for the ages but believes with the deal now signed with the Canadians they will ultimately prevail. It promises to be a very expensive donnybrook.

Matty Moroun's already spent hundreds of thousands of dollars [if not millions] on television ads produced by national pundit and national political campaign manager Dick Morris. They worked to the point the Michigan Legislature refused to back the Governor's bridge. Snyder just went around all of them and straight to the Canadians. They agreed to put up more than half a billion dollars and agreed to build the bridge, buy all the land on both sides of the border and do most of the heavy lifting on the project in exchange for control of the span for the next half century. Snyder deftly used that Canadian seed money as a way to get matching Federal Department of Transportation dollars to make up the other half billion dollars this four year building project will take. But Moroun is in his 80's, has little to lose and a lot of money to spend against Snyder still. He's spending a lot of loot per signature to get an anti bridge amendment on the November ballot. He is already buying up land around where the bridge is likely to go [the Del Ray neighborhood] and dare anyone to take it through eminent domain. Expect lawsuits on both sides of the border; expect boatloads of money delivered to both the Michigan Legislature and Congress to stop the federal funding from coming. Furthermore, though Moroun is a well known Republican donor, he will be looking for a candidate to challenge Snyder next time around and it would not surprise me if he backed a Democrat just to make it interesting. This fight is only beginning and there are likely some twists and turns I didn't think of here.

In the end I see both sides here and find myself ambivalent. Yes, if you look at the Ambassador Bridge akin to Tiger Stadium it is the no brainer the governor says it is. Yes, the American side will become a much smoother trade crossing as the I-75 gateway project is finally completed. The trucks will stay on the highway and out of our neighborhoods along Fort Street in Detroit. But as Ford Motor Company Chairman William Clay Ford Jr. told me today he sends 600 trucks across the Ambassador Bridge a day to service the 18 regional auto production plants. He says it's not so much the American side as the Canadian side that's the worst bottleneck. Ford says driving those trucks on residential streets steals time and money. He can't wait for the second span. Canada says it does not want any more trucks on Windsor's streets either which is the reason it fought Moroun [and his second span in the first place].

Yet, Moroun's is the only private bridge on an international crossing in the United States. He bought it, made a fortune from it and under the American Constitution has property rights that should allow him to continue to keep his bridge. But this bridge will more than likely, over time, put him and his family out of the bridge business. Somehow, somewhere, something doesn't seem right about that. Where does the government get the power to put private businesses out of business? Moroun wants to compete in the business he knows but he's being forced to compete with Government. That's a tall order. Moroun says the border traffic is well below its post 9-11 highs and won't begin to pay back the expense of the new bridge. It's in his interest to say that, and yet I can't help but wonder that he might just know his business. Talk to Moroun's people and they say those aren't even their numbers, they are the ones the state found in its own studies. Snyder would likely counter that it really doesn't much matter since the Canadians are buying and baked into the new span cake is flexibility of years [40-50] to pay off the bridge. Finally, I find myself blanching at the notion "no Michigan taxpayer dollars will pay for this span as the Governor would have you believe. True, based on the way things are structured no state income tax money is going into the bridge. Yet, last I checked roughly half of us pay federal taxes. Roughly half a billion U.S. federal dollars will go into the project. So my taxes will be spent on this new bridge [like it or not]. Another sobering thought is really a question; have you ever seen or heard of a major, government backed construction project that came in on time and under budget? It may have happened on a road project or two after incentivized contracts came into being. But the cynic in me isn't convinced the four year long time estimate or the billion dollar price tag is remotely accurate.

The Governor admitted today we are a long road away from his new span. The fight has just begun and it will be interesting covering all the pending twists and turns; it makes this job fun. Whether the fight over the bridge truly benefits or hurts Southeastern Michigan is a question for another day. The war is on, the lines are drawn, the opponents formidable. The brewing battle is going to be a barn burner!

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