Like a bad neighbor, the Moroun family is there: Stephen Henderson

Detroit Free Press

By Stephen Henderson
Editorial Page Editor

If you were to try to come up with the most unsavory combination imaginable of people, product and problems, you’d be hard-pressed to beat the Koch brothers; the Moroun family and petroleum coke along the Detroit riverfront.

Somewhere, Dante is giggling.

And here, Detroiters should be crying.

If you live or work anywhere along the west riverfront in Detroit, by now you’ve noticed the growing piles of what looks like soot on property that’s just east of Manuel (Matty) Moroun’s Ambassador Bridge.

Turns out, the stuff is worse than soot, though it’s unclear how much worse. It’s petroleum coke, a byproduct of an oil-refining process. The Environmental Protection Agency says it’s fine to store and safe so long as it’s not “disturbed.” It’s clearly waste, though, with a high carbon and sulfur content. And piling it along the river wouldn’t seem to prevent disturbing it.

Rain could wash it into the river, or perhaps make it airborne. And how secure is the site where it’s being stored?

It also turns out this particular pile of coke is owned by Koch Carbon, one of the many companies associated with right-wing activists David and Charles Koch. They’re storing it on land owned by Moroun, supposedly before shipping it overseas for sale.

The mountains look horrible, like big, dirty mounds of ash or some other waste product. They’re visible from just about anywhere along the Detroit side of the river west of downtown; from Canada, pictures suggest it looks even worse.

And even if they pose no environmental hazard (hard to believe, but possible) they’re an awful eyesore. This is dumping, along the riverfront, in close proximity to places where lots of people live and work.

This is one of the biggest problems the Morouns, who are the city’s largest private landholders, have. If you tried, you might be able to excuse their greed over their bridge and the unbelievable obstinance they’ve shown over a rival, publicly owned bridge taking shape further down river.

But they’re just bad neighbors. Maybe the worst in metro Detroit.

The trucks they own trundled down residential streets for years while they stalled and fought over the Gateway project to re-route traffic.

Their abandoned buildings — Michigan Central Station has become an iconic representation of Detroit decay — haunt neighborhoods all over southwest Detroit in particular.

Now they’re letting the Koch brothers dump along a riverfront that the city and other private interests have spent tens of millions trying to revitalize and make accessible and clean for people to enjoy. You know, like they do in just about any other city.

I’m sure this is worth a good buck or two to the Morouns. And it seems unlikely anyone will do much about it, at least in the short-term. Our best hope may be for the state to coerce a change in the way the petroleum coke is being stored. Like, maybe, put it in something, rather than just piling it along the riverfront.

Meanwhile, for the rest of us, this is just another circle of Moroun hell, with the Koch brothers and a filthy pile of soot as a stage prop.

What a joy.

The toll collector from hell

The Toronto Star

By David Olive
Business Columnist

There really is a troll under the Ambassador Bridge spanning the Detroit River at one of the world’s most congested transit points. His name is Manuel “Matty” Moroun. It’s a name worth remembering as symbolic of what’s toxic about America’s political culture.

A second crossing, by the reckoning of Michigan political and business leaders, would kick-start economic recovery in one of America’s states hardest hit by the global recession.

Governor Rick Snyder, a Republican, regards a second crossing as “critically important” to his vision of a rejuvenated Detroit as a major hub of international trade. The influx of Canadian tourists alone, no longer dissuaded by the notorious Ambassador Bridge bottleneck, could boost Michigan’s GDP by some 10 per cent. It’s all good, as the kids say.

And also not to be, after a five-year battle. On Thursday, a Michigan legislative committee killed a proposed joint Canadian-U.S. consortium’s bid to build a $2.2-billion bridge to compete with Moroun’s.

Moroun’s fingerprints were all over the outcome. The Ambassador Bridge owner dipped into his estimated net worth of $1.7 billion for a $5-million campaign of TV ads spreading the disinformation that a second crossing would be a taxpayer albatross.

Moroun recruited the Tea Party-funding Koch brothers, Charles and David, to kick in more millions for a mass-mailing to Michiganders spreading the same untruths. In the most recent election cycle, Moroun spent $565,000 in campaign donations to influential lawmakers in Lansing, the state capital. Moroun even recruited the slippery Dick Morris, strategist for hire for both major political parties and lately a Fox News talking head, as an advisor on legislative arm-twisting.

At 84, Moroun is two years older than the rickety Ambassador, world’s longest suspension bridge on completion in 1929, when a crank-handle was still required to start most cars then on the road.

An octogenarian relic no less than Moroun, who expects politicians who are bought to stay bought, as the saying goes, the Ambassador accounts for annual delays of 5.2 million hours for the 7,200 trucks crossing it each day.

The cargo of those vehicles is worth a staggering $150 billion a year. And the delays are costing Ford Motor Co. alone an estimated annual $13.5 million in productivity losses on the 600 or so trucks Ford sends across the U.S.-Canada border each day.

An estimated eight million jobs in the U.S., mostly in the economically crippled Midwest, depend on the Detroit-Windsor crossing.

For Canada, border delays add to production costs as manufactured goods repeatedly cross the border in the process of assembly. That costs Canada – and mostly the Ontario economy – between 1 per cent and 2 per cent of GDP, or between $15 billion and $30 billion a year.

Those costs, by the calculation of Université d’Laval economist Stephen Gordon, are big enough to offset the benefits of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

But the public interest does not overly tax Moroun’s thinking. Neither does logic.

In fact, Michigan’s costs would be minimal for a second bridge. Bonds issued by a newly created authority financing the bridge would not be guaranteed by Michigan. And Canada has offered Michigan $550 million in loans to finance the U.S. approach roads to a new bridge, to be recouped from tolls. “This is Canada’s No. 1 national infrastructure priority,” says Roy Norton, Canada’s consul general in Detroit.

That the proposed second bridge would be publicly owned but privately run is a distinction that doesn’t matter to the Kochs. The free-market ideologues have bought Moroun’s self-depiction as a beleaguered private citizen crushed under the iron boot of the state.

Yet there’s not a thimble’s worth of validity to Moroun’s stated justifications in defending his monopoly.

He claims that with Ambassador traffic having dropped 40 per cent since 2000, his bridge would be put out of business by a second crossing.

Yes, traffic has declined as Moroun’s bridge has become more decrepit. Many frustrated truckers schlep to the Blue Water Bridge at the Sarnia-Port Huron crossing, which was twinned not long ago. Or they try their luck with the three bridges at Niagara.

Yet Moroun also insists he wants to build his own second bridge. It would be another privately owned and thus, by his lights, wholesome enterprise. Except that Moroun’s been making this pledge for eons. And why would he do it if, as Moroun claims, a second crossing would put his Ambassador Bridge out of business?

With a straight face, Moroun’s son, Matthew, celebrated this week’s family victory by claiming “The Ambassador Bridge is the most efficient border crossing in North America.” He should pass that news to Bloomberg BusinessWeek, which last month asserted that “Few would deny the traffic jams on the Ambassador are anything other than epic.”

Think of it as amoral leverage: the reckless or calculated self-interest of just one or a tiny group of people in triggering a global recession. Or in turning on its head the centuries-old philosophy of the greatest good for the greatest number.

Moroun has long been scorned locally for his toll hikes, aging customs-inspection plazas and treacherous access roads. Yet he has held sway over two national governments that want a second crossing, two mayors, a U.S. county executive, most of the Democratic caucus in Lansing, and pretty much the entire Southwest Michigan business establishment, including chief mascot Bill Ford Jr.

That says more about the supine character of the bridge supporters than Moroun.

Rarely but occasionally in this capitalist part of the world, private property rights are trumped by the public interest.

In the dead of night, then-Chicago mayor Richard Daley simply bulldozed a seldom-used regional airport that stubbornly held out against the Millennium project for his city’s justly famed waterfront.

In the 1990s, then-Texas Rangers executive George W. Bush prevailed on Austin to expropriate private land in a Dallas-Fort Worth suburb for his new Ballpark at Arlington. Pierre Trudeau invoked eminent domain in seizing land in Pickering, when he had designs on a second Toronto airport.

“Everyone wants a private bridge,” says Michigan Lieutenant Governor Brian Calley, Snyder’s point man in trying to win legislative approval for a second crossing. “The question is, do they want a private bridge for one politically active family with exclusive access to a monopoly.”

So far, that view has not proved winsome in Lansing. Instead, Moroun’s undisguised self-interest has won the day with legislators whose campaign war chests are stuffed with who knows how many tens of thousands of dollars in donations from the troll under the Ambassador Bridge.

Detroit International Bridge Company co-opts Tea Party for one man’s gain

By Average Joe

A curious commercial by the Detroit International Bridge Company keeps popping up on local television. The spot claims that dastardly Michigan politicians are trying to waste $2 billion in taxpayer money to build another “bridge to nowhere.”

While the commercial would have viewers believe it is the effort by a concerned group of citizens to stop a government boondoggle, it turns out the “Detroit International Bridge Company” is just a front for billionaire Manuel Moroun.  Mr. Moroun owns and operates that Ambassador Bridge, which connects Detroit and Windsor, Ontario.  As it turns out, Mr. Moroun’s private ownership of the bridge grants him a de facto monopoly over one of the country’s busiest commercial traffic routes.

So when his commercial proclaims “we don’t need [another bridge],” no one should take that statement as face value since we do need Mr. Moroun’s bridge.  And Mr. Moroun’s ownership of the crossing has proven quite lucrative for him.

Currently, the eighty year-old bridge is clogged with traffic.  Mr. Moroun insists that traffic is down by half since 2000 and construction of a new bridge would leave him unable to pay his bills.  Of course, much of the decline in traffic was due to the collapse of the Detroit auto industry and has rebounded since.  Further, the decline hasn’t stopped Mr. Moroun from planning how own brand-new bridge…right next to his current one.

If anyone wants an example of how the Tea Party mentality laid waste to effective public policy, Mr. Moroun’s campaign to keep his bridge monopoly is it.  With assistance from the Koch brothers, Mr. Moroun has effectively “co-opted some of the Tea Party movement” and made his bridge a case of “free enterprise versus big government,” making governing Republicans terrified of opposing him.

Indeed, watching Mr. Moroun’s commercial, the appeal to the Tea Party mentality is obvious.  Viewers would believe any new bridge would merely be another case of excessive government waste.  The truth, however, is that this appears to be the case of one man’s “free enterprise” standing in the way of everyone’s economic progress.

The new bridge’s biggest advocates are the state’s Republican executive and a coalition of local businesses and the Big Three automakers.  As Michigan’s lieutenant governor puts it: “Everyone wants a private bridge. The question is, do they want a private bridge for one politically active family with exclusive access to a monopoly?”

There’s a question that goes utterly unaddressed by the Detroit International Bridge Company.