Bridge battle a heavyweight bout

By Chris Vander Doelen, The Windsor Star

Matty Moroun, Ambassador Bridge proprietor and unofficial nemesis to the City of Windsor, is starting to look rather desperate as his opponents close in on him.

Truck traffic lines up along Huron Church Road in Windsor in this December, 2010 file photo. Photograph by: File photo, The Windsor Star

Bottom line: the cross-border struggle to build a new international bridge across the Detroit River is far from over, even if Moroun and company won the last skirmish in the Michigan legislature.

After a state’s senate committee refused to recommend a bill to finance the new international crossing two weeks ago, many observers on both sides of the border made the mistake of thinking the whole project was dead in the water, so to speak.

Wrong.

It’s still not a sure thing, but all the forces of government and industry continue to be aligned against the Moroun family and its stranglehold on international truck traffic. Almost nobody but the Morouns and their hired allies want it to continue.

That’s why, just before the Michigan vote two weeks ago the state’s most revered industrial icon was trotted out to urge passage of the bill so the bridge can be built. William Clay Ford Jr. isn’t the king of Michigan, but he’s as close to royalty as that state gets.

He politely stated why the health of the auto industry requires a new bridge here, and left it at that.

This week Mich. Gov. Snyder stated repeatedly and unequivocally that he still intends to have a new international bridge built to hook up with the $1.4-billion extension to Highway 401 under construction on the Canadian side.

A mere 3-2 committee vote doesn’t kill it, he says. Michigan still needs a new bridge. He said it in Lansing, he said it in Ottawa, he said it on CBC radio. He means it, quite obviously.

Insiders say there are still multiple ways the governor can get the final approvals through for the bridge, including issuing an executive order.

Meanwhile, Snyder has also launched what I believe is a roundabout attack on the Moroun empire by suggesting that the state replace its retail gasoline tax with a wholesale tax.

A senior state official once told me that one of the reasons the state’s highways are in such poor repair is that the Ambassador Bridge’s duty free fuel sales divert tens of millions of tax dollars from the state’s transportation budget.

It seems to me that transferring the tax to the wholesale level is a back door means of ending that tax loss.

(A quick definition of chutzpah: the Ambassador Bridge is the same company which has spent a reported $5 million on TV ads claiming Michigan should fix its lousy local roads rather than waste money on a new bridge. And they are the same people who are blocking the $2 billion Washington is willing to give Michigan for road construction if the bridge is built using $550 million loaned by Canada).

But Moroun’s worst setback came this week when Judge Prentis Edwards found him personally in contempt for ignoring court orders to reconfigure the plaza on the Detroit side of the bridge.

Moroun has been summoned to present himself before Judge Edwards on Jan. 12 for sentencing, which could include fines and/or jail time.

What a humiliation for a man who makes even fewer public appearances than Bill Ford. And he only does so only after issuing detailed conditions for his appearance, as though he were a rock star. Or royalty.

A man like that is not going to meekly show up, cap in hand, in a dumpy Detroit courtroom for a public spanking in front of sniggering onlookers.

It’s not going to happen, someone predicted to me Friday. At age 84 Moroun’s pride will not permit it. But short of calling in from his death bed, it’s hard to see how he can get out of it.

Moroun’s desperation became evident after his son Matthew accused Judge Edwards of trying to secure an appointment for his own son by beating up on the bridge company at the behest of Gov. Snyder.

Talk about contempt! The accusation is breathtaking, even in the retail circus that is U.S. justice. The Morouns’ attacks on the judiciary also indicate why Ottawa has decided not to cut a deal with the family.

The new crossing is not just about building a bridge any more, it’s also about sovereignty. Canada can’t have one guy controlling the bulk of its international trade, even if he was a benevolent soul and the picture of fair business practices.

The Ambassador Bridge company has taken Canada’s most important border crossing hostage. The region’s automotive and trucking industries are hostage, our international security, even our future economic growth are being held at gunpoint.

People are being kept of work, the creation of new jobs and new wealth is being smothered, and millions of lives are being affected by this stalemate.

So let’s hope Snyder is right that construction of a new bridge can begin within “months” once the Moroun logjam is cleared.