Bridge brouhaha

SPECIAL REPORT: Push to build a second border bridge in Windsor sparks an Ontario election-year dustup

By JENNIFER O’BRIEN, The London Free Press

WINDSOR – If you’ve been to Windsor, chances are you’ve crossed the Ambassador Bridge to Detroit.

Chances are it took a while — maybe an hour or more, by the time you nervously sweated by customs and found yourself finally driving through Detroit’s Mexicantown.

The wait was annoying, inconvenient.

But to thousands of truckers who use North America’s busiest border crossing, the holdups at the 83-year-old bridge owned by Michigan billionaire Manuel Moroun are more than a passing headache.

“On a good day (the wait is) 15 minutes. On a bad day, an hour and a half,” said Kingston-based trucker Andrew Barriage, who crosses the bridge at least twice daily.

“I’m paid by the mile, so if I’m sitting there I don’t make anything. I think every driver I’ve heard on the CB (radio) and I’ve talked to — they want another bridge. Something easier to get across and less backups,” he said.

Truckers aren’t the only ones hot under the collar; with an Ontario election two months away, the bridge’s private owner has taken to the TV airwaves in a “Road to Nowhere” campaign accusing the McGuinty government of wasting taxpayers’ money on a major approach to a second new bridge still held up on the U.S. side.

The cost of border delays at the Ambassador — one of only two privately-owned border crossings — is among many reasons business and all levels of governments are fighting for a second bridge — a publicly-funded, ­privately-managed span — about three kilometres west of the Ambassador.

Other reasons?

Building another bridge means lots of jobs and would come in handy in event of a terrorist attack on the Ambassador.

Problem is, supporters of the new bridge are fighting a billionaire who’d like to keep his lucrative monopoly on bridge traffic and is willing to spend to keep U.S. politicians on his side.

The federal and Ontario governments have committed to the Essex-Windsor Parkway, a $1.4-billion project to create an express route to the new bridge, an alternative to the snarled route through Windsor to the Ambassador.

About $300 million has been spent on land, demolition and preliminary work.

Construction is expected to begin this summer

Ottawa wants the new access so badly, it’s offered a $550-million loan to help destitute Michigan cover its side of the costs, a deal Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder took to Washington, getting federal approval for matching road funds.

The money would be repaid by tolls, according to the deal, which Snyder tried to get his state to approve last month.

It all looked good until Michigan politicians — apparently swayed by the Ambassador owners — failed to pass the bill before summer break. The Morouns stand to lose more than half their business if the government-funded span goes up and have managed to convince some Michigan politicians to block the public-private bridge.

The Ambassador’s Canadian arm — Canada Transit Co. — has begun running TV attack ads accusing Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty of wasting millions of taxpayer dollars on a bridge that’s not needed, when cross-border traffic is down and delays could be prevented by opening more customs booths.

“It’s silly,” said Matt Moroun, who runs the company his father bought more than 30 years ago and says traffic has been nearly halved since its 1999 peak.

“The only real reason to put up another bridge would be for traffic. But even though traffic has gone down constantly (since 1999), that pesky fact isn’t going to get in the way of the bureaucrats’ dream. It isn’t driving across the bridge that takes the time — the (back ups) are at customs.”

Moroun started to build a new bridge beside the Ambassador, but was stopped by government for not getting proper approvals. But he says the second span had more to do with the Ambassador’s aging structure than with heavy traffic.

He says the delays could be solved by more customs officers. Though the Ambassador has 29 booths on both sides, he said, they’re never all open at once.

Six on the Canadian side have never been used at all, he said.

“If you are grocery shopping at a giant grocery store, but there are only two clerks working the checkout, do you think you’re going to get out any quicker?”

Moroun said he’s being “demonized” by supporters of the new bridge, whom he says paint him as a bully trying to protect what’s essentially a monopoly.

He doesn’t deny spending on a campaign to thwart the government bridge, but said he’s entitled to fight for his business.

“Every dollar we use comes from our business. We are legally using those dollars as best as we can to make sure as many people as possible understand what government is doing to put us out of business,” he said, adding his bridge has never used a penny of tax dollars in its history.

He has help from Americans for Prosperity, which has gone into a Detroit area where the approach to a new bridge would go and distributed pamphlets made to look like eviction notices.

Moroun may be convincing U.S. politicians, but there’s no shortage of people on both sides of the border differ.

“I think we need another bridge. there’s too much traffic on that one,” said Raul Hernandez, who owns a supermarket in Detroit’s Mexicantown, a stone’s throw from the bridge. “It’s always under construction and there’s only one lane.

“We were remarking how one guy can stop a project by contributing to a few politicians’ campaigns, and spending hundreds of thousands of dollars probably on negative advertising for this bridge when you have 10.5% unemployment on that side of the border, and also on this side, and this would have created several thousand jobs for a few years,” said Windsorite Ed Tatti, sitting down for coffee with a friend after a cross-border cheese run.

“This guy is trying to stop this project and it seems ridiculous . . . in the morning it takes you an hour to get through — or more.”

Tatti has another problem. Living near the bridge, he must deal with traffic backups down Windsor’s Huron Church Rd., the route transport trucks use between the bridge and Hwy. 401.

“You have to find other places to get through because it takes forever to get where I’m going,” he said. “We definitely could use a second bridge.”