The story of mich-can and a bridge too far

The Windsor Star

Ross Clarke

I have watched with great interest, daily, the manoeuvrings of Matty Moroun to protect his bridge crossing franchise over the Detroit River. This franchise was originally granted to a group of business people in the ’20s who saw the need for a crossing to enhance trade between the U.S. and Canada. But the documentation is not an exclusive franchise. It’s interesting to note that the Detroit-Canada tunnel was built around the same time.

The Ambassador Bridge has such potential to work in the public interest, but ask anybody today and they will reply, “In the public interest?” The public is tired of driving through the same potholes for the last 30 years. A little sugar for the public would have gone a long way.

Maybe some change is in progress, but it still does not negate the fact that, for future growth of trade between the U.S. and Canada, we need another crossing.

With all the work of so many people, we are still without a new crossing. Will it be built in our lifetime? I was involved in moving the idea forward in the ’90s, and it still is not built.

Here’s what happened to the Mich-Can International Bridge Company.

Early in 1991, Ron Delaney walked into my office and asked for some maps of the Ojibway area. I asked him why. I knew Ron for many years as a fellow Rotarian. Ron had recently retired after 30 years of service to the Detroit Canada Tunnel Corporation, last as president.

Ron was also the past chairman of the IBTTA in Washington (International Bridge Tunnel & Turnpike Association, a worldwide organization). He said then there would be a need for a new crossing and now was the time to start.

In 1991, I asked Ron who was helping him, and he said, no one. So I volunteered to help.

Now there were two of us. Ron was also a past-president of the downtown Detroit Rotary club (which used to have 500 members).

After much discussion, we decided to organize a knowledgeable team. Roy Lancaster had just retired as president of the Ambassador Bridge, and was a fellow Rotarian, so we invited him to join us. Roy was also a past president of the IBTTA.

Then Walter Prince, of the firm McPherson Prince and Geddes. Walter brought on Joe Thomas, a Michigan attorney, well connected in business circles.

I then called on John Millson, then mayor, and we had a meeting with him. He said he was shortly going to see Coleman Young, and he would ask for his support. John called me after the meeting and said when he went in to visit Coleman, Matty Moroun was with him. John was told in no uncertain terms that a new bridge would never be built. Remember, that was 1991.

We naively said, well, Young won’t be mayor forever. We will wait him out. But in the meantime, we would get organized. I examined all the property on the Canadian side, and most was owned by some type of government organization. On the Detroit side the connection was the former Detroit Coke Company, principle suppliers of coke to Ford Motor Company. Its owner was very reclusive.

About this time, late 1991 and early 1992, Ron arranged for Cofiroute, out of France, to bring their turnpike and bridge engineers over to fly the Detroit River and confirm the site. I can remember flying up and down the river. And yes, the only feasible site is the one we selected – which is the site for the proposed new crossing.

I now had to get in contact with the reclusive Don Crane. I looked in every reference I could think of, but no reference to Don. So I hired a friend who was a well known local private detective, and told him I needed to speak with Crane. The weeks went by and no news. Finally one day the phone rang, and the voice on the other end of the line said, “Hi Ross, this is Don Crane.” We arranged to meet at the Windsor Club.

It was a good meeting, and he was excited about going ahead.

We then put together a whole team and waited for Young to retire. In 1994, Dennis Archer became Detroit’s mayor, and we arranged a meeting with him – he was supportive. He also introduced us to Reginald Turner, a Michigan attorney, and Ron Hall, a Detroit automotive manufacturer and supplier to the Big Three.

So from about 1995 on we had many meetings with all kinds of people and groups. Our partners were Fluor Infrastructure out of Greenville, S.C. Jim Carroll and I were the co-team leaders of the group.

We developed engineering drawings and renderings, cost estimates, etc., that were necessary for a project to design, build, finance and operate a public facility such as this – with its eventual return to full public ownership.

We were published in both The Windsor Star and the Detroit newspapers and met with both city councils many times. But we needed one piece of legislation to go forward.

The most cost-effective way then was determined to be state tax-exempt revenue bonds. We were working with Bear Stearns, out of New York, who had the entire financing package tentatively sold.

We discovered that although seven states had the enabling legislation for tax exempt revenue bonds, Michigan did not. Our lobbyists, Muchmore & Harrington, and attorneys Miller Canfield, arranged for a hearing with the Senate Transportation Committee to present the framework necessary for the enabling legislation. The chairman at the time was Bill Schuette, now attorney general.

I always remember going to the hearing, and in the middle of our presentation, Frank Kelly, the former Michigan attorney general, then representing the bridge, walked into the room. Well, you would have thought God walked into the room. As you can appreciate, our request, even though supported by MDOT and others, ground to a halt. No one ever said no to the proposal, and then no one ever said yes – it just went into remission.

At that point, not seeing any current resolution of the stalemate, the decision was made to back off.

It was around this time, late ’90s, early 2000, that DRIC was initiated.

The millions DRIC spent on their study up and down the river brought them right to the place we told the government about in 1991. But it had to be done to fulfil the requirements of the Environmental Assessment Act on both sides of the river.

Besides the EA, I came up with a list of some 30 agencies, on both sides of the border, that had to give their approval.

The project, as envisioned today, is much larger than we had originally proposed.

There are, of course, many mini-stories of all our meetings, which would fill a volume. I still have all the renderings, drawings and cost estimates in my office. At one point I had 20 bankers boxes of material, and I have saved the most important ones and look forward to seeing the bridge built in my and Ron’s lifetime.

Ross Clarke is the former managing director of Mich-Can International Bridge Company.