Watchdog: Lines drawn over Detroit-Windsor crossing

Written by

Associated Press

DETROIT — Seven months after Michigan elected a new governor and legislature, negative TV ads are popping up again — along with fiery speeches, robo-calls and accusations of twisting facts and dirty tricks.

This time, it’s not about an election. It’s about a bridge.

Government officials and business groups have agreed for years on the need for a second international bridge between Detroit and the Canadian city of Windsor, Ontario, the busiest commercial border crossing in North America. The effort has stalled, largely because of opposition from the owner of the existing Ambassador Bridge, billionaire Manuel “Matty” Moroun.

Nearly 30% of the goods sold between the United States and Canada are trucked across the Detroit River. Yet there are just two main paths through the bottleneck: an underwater tunnel too cramped for tractor-trailers, and the Ambassador — a 7,500-foot span that opened weeks after the 1929 stock market crash.

Moroun contends a publicly supported bridge would compete unfairly with his own. Bridge supporters say it would relieve congestion and provide an alternative in case the aging Ambassador is disabled. Their push has been gaining traction — largely because Republican Gov. Rick Snyder has championed the project since taking office in January.

The clash is a rarity because the vast majority of international bridges are public infrastructure. And the debate is getting ugly.

Snyder is pushing for quick approval of measures to create a United States-Canadian authority to oversee construction of a bridge about two miles south of the Ambassador. Legislative hearings started last week. Moroun and his allies are fighting back, saying an overbearing government is trying to destroy his company with a boondoggle that will cost taxpayers $100 million a year.

“Politicians have a bridge they want to sell you,” an announcer says darkly in one TV ad. “A bridge we can’t afford, with money we don’t have.”

Backers of a new bridge dispute the $100 million figure. Snyder insists there’s enough traffic for two bridges and he’s not picking a fight with Moroun.

“It is not anti-anyone. It is about international trade and job creation,” he said.

Supporting the plan are both federal governments and corporate heavyweights including General Motors, Ford, Chrysler, Amway and Kellogg. Organized labor is on board. Both Detroit’s Democratic mayor and the Republican executive of adjacent Oakland County favor it.

Democrats in the legislature have long backed the idea, and there are signs opposition from Republicans who control both chambers may be softening. Some lawmakers do question whether the government should be involved, and whether the state would really be free of costs.

Still, Moroun has considerable influence. His family and employees pumped more than $550,000 into races for state offices in 2009-10, the nonpartisan Michigan Campaign Finance Network says.

Also in his corner is the Michigan chapter of Americans for Prosperity. The right-wing advocacy group has sent mass mailings to districts of wavering GOP legislators, and distributed fake eviction notices in a working-class Detroit neighborhood, warning residents their houses could be seized to make way for the bridge. Moroun has also sued the United States and Canadian governments over his proposal to build a twin, private bridge.

Meanwhile, anti-Moroun websites and rallies depict him as a slumlord willing to sacrifice economic growth in the depressed city for fatter profits from tolls and duty-free gasoline sales.

The skirmishes foreshadow a summer battle between Moroun, an 84-year-old trucking magnate, and Snyder, 52, a former executive and venture capitalist.

“Should we roll over and let the government take our business? Nobody would do that,” said Moroun’s son Matthew, the bridge company’s vice chairman. Manuel Moroun became sole owner of the privately built bridge in 1979, spending $30 million.

Pressure for a new bridge has mounted with growth of international commerce, particularly since the North American Free Trade Agreement took effect in 1994. It intensified after the 2001 terrorist attacks, when heightened security caused 12-hour backups on the Ambassador and raised fears it might become a target.

Automakers rely on quick shipments between parts and manufacturing plants on both sides of the border. Ford Motor Co. sends 600 trucks across the bridge daily, said executive chairman Bill Ford Jr.

“We’ve had holdups on the Ambassador Bridge and it’s very costly to all of us,” Ford said.

For big semitrailers, the nearest alternative is the Blue Water Bridge about 60 miles away. A ferry service in Detroit also operates for trucks carrying hazardous materials.

Supporters believe the latest plan, called the New International Trade Crossing, is one Michigan can’t refuse.

The estimated price of a new bridge, toll and customs plazas, and expressway linkups is nearly $4 billion. Backers say it wouldn’t cost financially strapped Michigan a penny. Private investors would finance the bridge itself, and Canada has pledged to cover Michigan’s $550 million share of the remaining work, eventually recouping the money from tolls. The Obama administration says the Canadian funding would trigger more than $2 billion in federal grants for transportation projects around Michigan.

Too good to be true, the Morouns say. Traffic on the Ambassador is down 40% since 2000.

Construction of new bridge vital to state’s economy

Opinion

Daily Tribune

Gov. Rick Snyder announced his support for construction of a new bridge between Detroit and Windsor.

We’re glad see some positive news about a project that will help the state. It’s needed to balance a very negative ad campaign under way over the past couple of months that has tried to stop the new bridge. The ads claim that construction isn’t in the best interest of the public. In reality, the only one whose “best interest” will be affected is the billionaire owner of the Ambassador Bridge, 84-year-old Manuel “Matty” Moroun, who is financing the public relations blitz.

Over a year ago, we expressed support for the new bridge and we haven’t seen any data to change our minds.

The campaign against the new structure is slick, well written and excellently executed. Moroun appears to be getting his money’s worth. We just hope he doesn’t get his way.

At best, the campaign is misleading and, at worst, it is a deceitful attempt to denigrate a project that truly would benefit Michigan.

In a news release, Snyder outlined some reasons why a bridge is not only desired but needed. He notes that trade with Canada supported 237,000 Michigan jobs; commerce between Canada and Michigan grew to $62 billion, which is a 42-percent increase over 2009; Michigan and Canada are each other’s largest trading partners; and Michigan exports more goods to Canada than any other state.

The economic numbers involved are staggering. The bridge would bring an estimated $1.8 billion in investment to the Detroit-Windsor area, create 10,000 construction jobs in Michigan and generate another 30,000 indirect jobs in Michigan and Windsor. Also, the Canadian government has offered to pay the $550 million cost of the work. Once constructed, its operation is expected to be supported through tolls. In addition, once financing is in place, the state would be in line for funds from Washington.

The project has the support of Chrysler, General Motors and Ford auto companies. Other advocates of the New International Trade Crossing, formerly called the Detroit River International Crossing, include Toyota, Honda, automotive suppliers, West Michigan businesses, including Amway, Steelcase, Meijer and Wolverine World Wide Inc., chambers of commerce from Marquette to Muskegon to Detroit and statewide business and agri-businesses, including the Michigan Farm Bureau, Michigan Manufactures Association and Business Leaders for Michigan, labor unions, including the Michigan AFL-CIO, and political leaders across the state.

Considering the overwhelming support, it is amazing and sad that Moroun has managed to hold up the project.

We understand his desire to maintain his monopoly on local bridge crossings but figures indicate he will ultimately also benefit. It’s not as though the new bridge will put him out of business.

What’s needed now is for the state Legislature to pass the enabling laws that will allow the Michigan to contract with Canada and get the new bridge constructed.

Last year that legislation was stalled. This year, we hope our Lansing leaders look past a billionaire’s money and do what’s right for the state.

Don’t believe that ad!

Dave Hornstein

Detroit National Politics Examiner

When all else fails, lie.

That seems to be the strategy of Ambassador Bridge owner Manuel (Matty) Maroun in running TV commercials that falsely claim the proposed competing publicly-owned New International Trade Crossing (NITC) would cost Michigan taxpayers $100 million a year.

In fact, the $550 million Michigan share of the project would be covered by the Canadian government and be repaid from NITC toll revenues. This Canadian bridge money, in turn, would be used as matching funds by Michigan to get $2.2 billion in federal highway money over the next 10 years. Money for building the $950 million bridge would be raised by issuing bonds, which would also be repaid from toll revenues, and Michigan taxpayers would not be held liable in case of default. The total cost of the project, which would be completed in 2016 or 2017, would be $3.8 billion, with the largest portion, $1.7 billion, paying for the proposed Windsor-Essex Parkway, which would connect the NITC to Highway 401, the route to Toronto.

It seems strange in the first place for a private individual to own and control an international border crossing, let alone the busiest one on the U.S.-Canadian border. Customs and border security are, after all, government functions, and the only other privately-owned crossing on this long border is at International Falls, MN. As it is, the Ambassador Bridge, built in 1929, has seen better days and is inadequate for carrying existing traffic.  Maroun wants to build a twin span next to the Ambassador at a cost of $500 million, but that proposal has been rejected by Canadian authorities.

The NITC, which would be owned by the U.S., Canadian, Michigan and Ontario governments, would be located two miles downriver from the Ambassador, making the Detroit area less vulnerable to border shutdowns from a bridge being closed, whether from terrorist attacks, repairs or unforeseen problems. The project is expected to generate 10,000 construction jobs and 30,000 indirect jobs, thereby increasing tax revenue.

As it is, Maroun now has a virtual monopoly at the Detroit River border, for the only other crossing, the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel, is unsuited for heavy truck traffic and carries very little of it. While Maroun claims a competing NITC would take away 75 percent of the Ambassador’s traffic, it is clear that from competition alone, his bridge would be less of a gold mine for him. But who has any sympathy for an 84-year-old billionaire who has raked in monopoly profits for decades and now has more money than he’ll ever be able to spend?

While Maroun is spending some of his money on dishonest commercials to try to build up public opposition to the NITC, his spending on the legalized bribery of campaign contributions to stop the project has so far been more effective. Last year, the NITC, then known as the Detroit River International Crossing (DRIC), was before the legislature with the support of then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat. It passed the then-Democratic-controlled House by a 56-51 vote, with all Republicans and nine Democrats opposed. When the bill reached the state Senate, then-Majority Leader Mike Bishop (R-Rochester) refused to schedule it for a vote.

Granholm’s Republican successor, Rick Snyder, supports the NITC, and Republicans now control both houses of the legislature. Other Republicans supporting the NITC include Oakland County Executive Detroit Mayor Dave Bing, and former Govs. John Engler and William Milliken. Business backers of the project include the automotive Big Three, the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce, Meijer, Steelcase, Kellogg and Amway. The NITC is also supported by such Democrats as Detroit Mayor Dave Bing, Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano and former Gov. James Blanchard, as well as labor unions. But when the choice for legislators is between legalized bribery and the public interest, all bets are off.