Ambassador Bridge tells Buffalo one thing and Detroit and Lansing just the opposite

Vander Doelen: Bridge’s claims contradict

By Chris Vander Doelen, The Windsor Star

Of all the outsiders following the fight to get a new bridge built over the Detroit River, none were watching more closely this week than the citizens of Fort Erie, Ont., and Buffalo, N.Y.

The border cities at the other end of southern Ontario also share a crucial trade link between Canada and the U.S. — the Peace Bridge over the Niagara River.

Just like us, Fort Erie and Buffalo have been through years of public debate over the creation of another crossing to compete with the publicly owned and managed one they already have.

Just like ours, the Peace Bridge is worn out because it’s been hammered by heavy truck traffic for more than 80 years. It needs replacing anyway because it’s too small at only three lanes, with plazas too cramped to handle growing truck traffic.

And just like here, the Moroun family of Detroit — the same family which owns the Ambassador Bridge over the Detroit River — is a central part of the debate.

The debate is almost identical in the two cities except for this fascinating fact: the Morouns and their companies play opposite roles in the two cities.

How different are the positions they take in each city? Try night and day, says Ron Rienas, general manager of the Peace Bridge. “You’d be amazed at what they say down here.”

Rienas checked The Windsor Star’s website this week to watch video of the news conference the Morouns held in Detroit this week. He contacted me after watching it.

“It was interesting watching Mr. (Matthew) Moroun on the video say one thing in Windsor-Detroit and the opposite here in Fort Erie-Buffalo,” Rienas wrote. “Of particular interest is their assertion that DRIC will destroy the Ambassador Bridge.”

In Windsor, the Morouns argue we don’t need a second bridge because traffic is down sharply. They warn against believing foolish government projections that NAFTA will lead to future traffic growth. It won’t ever come back, they claim.

Down in Fort Erie, they say the opposite. The Peace Bridge carries half the traffic Windsor-Detroit does. But the Morouns claim there is plenty of traffic down there to support another crossing — even though the region already boasts four international crossings with a total of 14 lanes to Windsor’s total of six.

On their Niagara website http://www.ambassadorniagara.com the Morouns glowingly cite Ontario government projections that truck traffic crossing the Niagara River will double by 2031 — the same argument they reject at this end of the province.

“They’re doing and saying things up there that make us say, ‘Are they serious?’ ” Rienas told me by phone later. “Just compare what they say.”

The Morouns claim they have already invested $500 million to acquire property and build new approach ramps to their planned second span over the Detroit River. The span itself will cost an additional $400 million, they say.

In Fort Erie they claim they can built a brand new, five-mile-long approach parkway to their new bridge, two new customs plazas AND a brand new mile-long bridge for the grand total of $250 million to $300 million.

That amount of money wouldn’t even buy one new plaza at this end of the province. Yet land acquisition and construction costs aren’t much different at either end of the province.

“It’s totally illogical,” Rienas says, chuckling at the chutzpah of the conflicting claims. “The whole project, the whole thing, highway and plazas and everything for that amount? Yeah, right.”

One thing is the same at both ends of the province: The Morouns have been told in writing that their proposals do not come close to meeting either U.S. or Canadian planning requirements. They haven’t done the work.

“Appropriate consultations … do not appear to have been carried out, and … it is not clear that the proposed inspection plaza meets appropriate standards,” Edwin R. Nolan, director of the U.S. State Department’s Office of Canadian Affairs, wrote to the Ambassador Bridge people in 2008 of their Niagara plans.

Nolan went on to describe the Moroun’s Niagara application as “incomplete,” having “serious deficiencies.

“We remain prepared to review any substantially complete application, if and when it is submitted.”

That’s where their plan for a new bridge over the Niagara River remains: In limbo.

Let’s hope the Michigan Republicans who continue to block the DRIC bridge know this. They might not be so eager to block our new crossing if they knew the Morouns were telling different tales in different states.

cvanderdoelen@thestar.canwest.com or 519-255-6852

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