Panel’s tour of proposed Detroit bridge site turns into debate

Paul Egan / Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Detroit— The U.S. plaza of the Ambassador Bridge was the scene of an impromptu debate Monday as members of the state Senate Economic Development Committee went on a fact-finding tour related to their consideration of a new publicly owned span across the Detroit River.

Boosters and opponents of the proposed New International Trade Crossing went along on the bus tour and stepped up to a microphone during stops to make their arguments.

Even Manuel “Matty” Moroun, the reclusive owner of the Ambassador Bridge and a staunch opponent of the proposed public bridge, made an appearance at the bridge’s duty-free store. He wants to use private money to build a bridge beside his 83-year-old span and has spent well over $1 million on TV ads and political donations opposing the New International Trade Crossing.

“I hope so,” Moroun said when asked if he thinks he will be able to build his planned crossing. “I’m working on it.”

But Moroun left most of the talking to his son Matthew, who is vice-chairman of the company that owns the Ambassador.

“This is an ideological argument,” Matthew Moroun told about 80 politicians, staffers, lobbyists and reporters who went on the tour. “It’s not based on economics, efficiencies or market realities.”

He called the Ambassador Bridge “a shining symbol of American prosperity (built) without any government assistance whatsoever,” and said only “politics and ideology” stand in the way of a new privately built bridge beside it.”

But Tom Shields of Marketing Resource Group, a spokesman for proponents of the public bridge backed by Gov. Rick Snyder, said a new bridge is needed 1.8 miles to the south of the Ambassador to clear a traffic bottleneck that threatens Michigan’s critical trade ties with Canada.

Shields stood in the Ambassador plaza and talked about how judges in Detroit have ordered the Ambassador owners to tear up parts of the plaza the courts have determined were built illegally.

“This is not necessarily an ideological battle; it’s become a legal battle,” Shield said.

“The Ambassador Bridge decided to build a plan that suited them, instead of the plan that they agreed to.”

Earlier, the Senate committee briefly convened an official meeting in the parking lot of a Michigan Welcome Center in southwest Detroit as its members prepared to tour the proposed site of the new bridge.

Sen. Mike Kowall, the Republican who chairs the committee, organized a bus trip from Lansing for the daylong tour, which is to include stops on both sides of the river and presentations by Windsor, Ontario, Mayor Eddie Francis, among others.

“This has been a longstanding discussion and sometimes heated argument in the state of Michigan and Ontario, as well,” Kowall said. “What we are doing is trying to clear the air … and get everything out in the open.”

The committee began hearings on the project in June.

Snyder is pushing hard for the new bridge, and votes on two bills to create a public authority to oversee its construction are expected in the Legislature this fall. The bridge is to be privately financed, built and managed, but publicly owned and overseen by a public authority.

Most of Snyder’s fellow Republicans have generally opposed the public bridge, formerly known as the Detroit River International Crossing, while Democrats have supported it.

The Morouns say the public bridge will cost taxpayers millions and needlessly cut into his business.. They say traffic doesn’t justify a second bridge, but they want to build one so they can more easily and economically retrofit the aging Ambassador.

Proponents say the public bridge will create about 10,000 construction jobs and clear a border bottleneck created by a lack of direct freeway access to the Ambassador.

Proponents have pegged the total cost of the project — including the $1 billion bridge and associated roadwork and customs plazas on both sides of the river — at $3.8 billion. But Canadian Consul General Roy Norton testified in June that lower than expected bids for Canadian roadwork had reduced that estimate to $3.6 billion.

The Canadians have offered to front $550 million to cover Michigan’s cost of the project. Canada plans to recover that money from Michigan’s share of bridge tolls.

State Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit, who was on the tour, supports the project but wants to make sure the nearby Delray residents she represents will receive benefits from the project, which will disrupt homes and businesses in southwest Detroit.

“When they actually come out and see it, they can see why there’s a need (for the bridge) and more importantly, why there’s a need to take a comprehensive approach that includes community benefits,” Tlaib said.