Committee can’t let donations cloud judgment on bridge vote

Detroit Free Press

by Stephen Henderson

It takes courage for politicians to stand up to money.

To tell a campaign contributor, “Hey, thanks for your support. But I’m here to act in the public’s interest, not just yours.”

We need that kind of courage today from members of the Michigan Senate Economic Development Committee.

The committee may finally vote on bills that would create an authority to build a new, publicly financed bridge to Canada across the Detroit River. And if it does, Michigan needs committee members to be thinking about the state’s interest, about the possibilities for growth in trade and in jobs from building the bridge.

And that means putting Ambassador Bridge owner Manuel (Matty) Moroun’s millions out of mind.

To preserve their monopoly crossing, Moroun and his family have poured a river of campaign cash into political pockets. The overall tab in 2009 and 2010 was $1.5 million, with more than a third of that going to state legislative races.

On the seven-member Economic Development committee, the Morouns made significant contributions to help Rep. Geoff Hansen, R-Hart, win a tight race, and spread money — through direct contributions or political action committees — to at least three other members, both Democrat and Republican.

There’s nothing illegal about that.

But contributions are not — or should not be — the basis for policy decisions.

Legislators need to consider the facts of the bridge proposal and make their decisions based on a rational analysis.

The most important thing for them to keep in mind is that they’re not actually voting to build a bridge. They’re being asked to create an authority that will decide whether a new bridge should be built and, if so, how it ought to be financed.

Years of study (by both government officials and independent groups) have led to the conclusion that a bridge built downriver from the Ambassador would help uncork traffic backups, provide better access to highways on the Canadian side and address national security concerns. Building the bridge would also create thousands of temporary jobs in a state that desperately needs them.

The Canadian government, which favors building this second, downriver bridge, has offered to front the money that Michigan would ordinarily have to come up with to get the project started. And Gov. Rick Snyder has secured a promise from Washington that the Canadian money could be used as a match to secure $2.2 billion in federal transportation dollars.

The money borrowed from Canada, as well as the bonds sold to build the bridge, would be repaid by tolls, according to proposed legislation. Taxpayers would not be on the hook.

Legislators need to create the bridge authority to help vet all of that information, and determine whether it makes sense to go ahead. It’s the first step in what would be a long process.

But the Morouns, in addition to showering legislators with campaign contributions, have indulged in a well-financed campaign of stark misinformation to derail this project before it even gets started.

They’ve said the new bridge would cost Michigan taxpayers billions, because traffic projections won’t support repaying loans with tolls. More recently, ads have claimed that building a new bridge would suck money away from other important Michigan road projects.

And in a shameful act, Americans for Prosperity this summer posted fake eviction notices on doors in the southwest Detroit community where the new bridge would go, hoping to scare people into Moroun’s corner.

I’ve taken issue with most of what the Morouns have said about the issue, and I believe that their motivation is to stall the new bridge through any means necessary. Their annual revenues from operation of the Ambassador Bridge could drop by about half if the new bridge were built. It’s in their self-interest to oppose a new crossing.

But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that they’re right — even about one of their claims. Isn’t creating the authority a step toward uncovering those truths? The authority will sort through the traffic projections, the deal with the Canadians and Snyder’s agreement with Washington before a single pillar gets poured for a new bridge. And citizens on both sides of the border will have a chance to see how the deal gets structured.

That’s where the public interest lies here. And we need members of the Senate Economic Development Committee to assert it — no matter how much money they may have gotten from Matty Moroun.