By Anne Jarvis, The Windsor Star
Call him Boss Moroun. Call me naive. I thought the days of one man owning a town were gone.
It’s astounding how much control one person and millions of dollars can exert.
The epic saga of Ambassador Bridge owner Manuel (Matty) Moroun and the four governments trying to build the new bridge is an astonishing lesson in money, power and politics in the U.S.
Is this how it works in the rest of the world’s only superpower, leader of the free world? That’s a scary thought.
The new bridge is a joint project by the governments of Canada, the U.S., Ontario and Michigan.
The last major hurdle to building it is getting Michigan to approve it. Gov. Rick Snyder won election a year ago in a landslide.
His fellow Republicans, riding his coattails, won decisive majorities in both the Senate and House. Snyder has cruised along getting a lot of big, controversial bills approved quickly. One of his top priorities is the new bridge.
But he can’t get that approved.
Everyone wants this bridge – all four living former governors Republican and Democrat, Detroit Mayor Dave Bing, Oakland County executive L. Brooks Patterson, the automakers, chambers of commerce, unions, civic organizations. Polls show most voters want it.
Canada has promised to pay Michigan’s share of the cost, $550 million, to be repaid by toll revenue. The U.S. government has said it will match that money times four, giving the state $2.2 billion to fix its infamous potholed roads.
Ontario is already building a new highway to the elusive new bridge.
Moroun is the only person who doesn’t want this bridge. No wonder.
His monopoly rakes in an estimated $60 million a year in toll revenue and God knows how much in duty free gas and goods.
The stakes are enormous. Canada is the U.S.’s largest trading partner, with trade between the two countries worth half-a-trillion dollars. One-quarter of that goes through Windsor and Detroit. Hundreds of thousands of jobs in Michigan, millions in the economically devastated U.S.
Midwest, depend on this trade and this border crossing. On a single crossing. Owned by one man.
Building an efficient, secure, government-owned bridge to safeguard a significant chunk of the economies of two nations will provide 10,000 direct construction jobs and 25,000 indirect jobs.
But it’s not happening.
Moroun and members of his family gave $1.5 million to candidates in the last election cycle who would be in a position to block the new bridge, according to the Detroit Free Press.
Six of the seven members of the Senate economic development committee, which voted down the new bridge last week, including the three who voted against it, got money from Moroun, either directly or from political action committees that got money from him, according to the Free Press.
One member got $4,000 directly and another $535,767 from political action committees. The two who voted for the new bridge also got money. I guess they were a bad investment.
Moroun has also spent almost $5 million on television ads – misleading ads – according to The Star’s Dave Battagello.
It’s an unprecedented amount, the Michigan Campaign Finance Network told Battagello. Moroun spent millions more on a mass mailing to the people of Michigan.
It’s government of Moroun, by Moroun, for Moroun.
“This is why we need campaign finance reform,” an American observer of the bridge tales told me.
Can you imagine one person spreading money like that around here and lawmakers taking it and aligning their votes? It would be a national scandal.
Investors think neither Canada nor the U.S. can control their own destinies, said Windsor West MP Brian Masse.
“If we can’t control our border and how we build infrastructure, what does that say about our sovereignty? What does that say about U.S. sovereignty?” he said. “It says basically the corporate world, one particular business, is in charge of the fate of a couple of nations because it is significantly tied to our overall economic development.”
Legislators who oppose the new bridge say they don’t want taxes to somehow end up being spent on it. What is it with Americans and taxes? They don’t want taxes, but what do they think pays for the government services they receive, from schools to roads to water?
It’s too late for that argument anyway. The Ambassador Bridge has already benefited mightily from taxpayers. The state just spent millions improving the ramps connecting highways to the bridge.
I feel sorry for the people of Michigan, a state with such huge problems. Government there doesn’t seem to be about duelling solutions or visions of the future. It seems to be about people with money protecting their interests – people who don’t give a you-know-what about their neighbours.
By the way, the Ambassador Bridge company was back in court again this month. A judge still can’t get Moroun to comply with an order to rip out his unapproved duty free store and gas pumps.
The protesters who occupied the bridge Thursday should also head to the offices of the legislators who bow down to Moroun.