Moroun’s greed could cost Michigan needed rail tunnel to Canada

Crain’s Detroit Business

Does bridge ballot threaten tunnel?
Wording could trigger vote on Canada plan

By Bill Shea

A $400 million Canadian effort to build a larger commercial train tunnel underneath the Detroit River could become a casualty in the ongoing war swirling around construction of a public bridge over the waterway.

The wording on a proposed statewide ballot measure that would require a public vote on construction of any new international bridge or tunnel funded by Michigan is murky enough that it theoretically could trigger a referendum on the effort to drill a new railroad tunnel between Detroit and Windsor.

The ballot initiative is the brainchild of the Detroit International Bridge Co., which is owned by Manuel “Matty” Moroun, and is aimed at stopping a proposed competing bridge over the Detroit River, the $3.2 billion New International Trade Crossing that would be jointly built by Michigan and Canada but operated by a private concessionaire.

Moroun has spent millions fighting the bridge because he sees it as unfair and unneeded government competition to his bridge, which has been stymied by Canada from building a new adjacent span to the Ambassador Bridge.

However, his bridge company says that the ballot measure isn’t supposed to ensnare the railroad tunnel.

“There is no intent to impact a private rail tunnel,” said Mickey Blashfield, the bridge company’s director of governmental relations. “The language is carefully crafted for bridge or tunnel for government projects, not private entities that are taking the risk/investment. Domestic supporting construction or rail improvements are not implicated.”

The rail tunnel would be affected only if got subsidies or resources from the state government, Blashfield said.

The tunnel “as a private initiative proper wouldn’t have a worry,” he said.

But proponents of the tunnel effort may be worried.

The ballot language (see box) mentions “motor vehicles” — which are defined in a way under Michigan law that can be interpreted to include trains. The state exempts certain equipment and vehicles as not being motor vehicles, but doesn’t exempt trains.

“Although, in common parlance, you might not consider a locomotive to be a motor vehicle, the Michigan Motor Vehicle Code has a very expansive definition of motor vehicle,” Marge Byington Potter, executive director of corporate affairs for the tunnel effort, said via email.

“A railroad train is excluded from the definition of a vehicle, but not from the definition of motor vehicle, and therefore is a ‘motor vehicle’ for the purposes of the act.”

The other language on the ballot proposal that could affect the tunnel is a reference to state resources. The word “resources” is undefined and could be open to interpretation. For example, could a state official answering questions from tunnel organizers, or simply providing permits, be considered a “resource”?

The Michigan Department of Transportation isn’t involved in the tunnel project but said it would be willing to help if asked.

“MDOT has made no commitment to financially assist in construction of the new tunnel. But we are committed to aiding the flow of commerce between the U.S. and our most important trading partner so we would, of course, consider with open minds anything the state can do to help,” Jeff Cranson, MDOT’s director of communications, said in an email.