After long fight, Detroit international bridge may be in sight

By Nick Carey

DETROIT (Reuters) – A decade ago Les Cadman stopped making improvements to his small house in Detroit’s declining Delray district because it stood in the path of a proposed bridge to Windsor, Ontario, the bustling Canadian city just across the Detroit River.

“Why bother fixing the place up when it looked like it would become a tear down?” asked Cadman, a former trucker, still spry at age 83.

Ten years on and his house no longer directly in the bridge’s path, Cadman and other residents of this forgotten neighborhood near the Detroit River are still waiting to see what a new bridge and a proposed 170-acre (70-hectare) U.S. customs plaza would mean for their community.

Years of opposition to the project, led by the billionaire private owner of the lone existing bridge from Detroit to Windsor, have helped keep plans for the new bridge on hold. This has left residents and community groups preparing for an eventual construction boom – but without knowing when it might start.

“We have had hundreds of meetings (with government officials) but we haven’t got anywhere,” said Tom Cervenak, executive director of the area’s community center. “It’s become comical.”

But after years of delays, the chances of the bridge being built are improving, bridge supporters say. The project will need $250 million in federal funding, and there could always be a new legal challenge, but expectations are rising.

“We know it’s coming and maybe soon, whether people like it or not,” said Simone Sagovac of the Community Benefits Coalition, which is lobbying on behalf of local residents.

A federal judge ruled last Tuesday that Detroit is bankrupt under federal law, prompting hope that the Motor City can emerge with a fresh chance for success. And a $4 billion bridge project would provide just the type of jobs and opportunities the city needs.

A BRIDGE TOO FAR

The Ambassador Bridge that links Windsor and Detroit is 84 years old and carries about a quarter of U.S.-Canada trade, which totaled $616 billion in 2012.

The proposed second bridge has the backing of the Canadian and U.S. governments, Michigan’s Republican Governor Rick Snyder and a wide array of logistics firms, a handful of other U.S. states, car makers and other businesses.

The bridge would enable trucks to travel smoothly from one country’s highways to the other’s, bypassing the nearly 20 stop lights en route from Windsor to Detroit today. The Canadians have already begun building a link to Ontario’s highway network, and the Canadian government has offered to pick up all but $250 million of a $4 billion construction tab.

“This is Canada’s number one infrastructure project,” said Roy Norton, Canada’s Consul General in Detroit, of the offer to foot most of the bill.

Once Governor Snyder accepted a Canadian government offer in 2011 for Canada to cover most of the cost, and used executive authority to circumvent a recalcitrant state legislature, the deal seemed done.

But Manuel “Matty” Moroun, 86, a trucking magnate and owner of the Ambassador Bridge, has been standing in the way.

The Moroun family, worth $1.5 billion according to the latest Forbes list, has spent tens of millions of dollars fighting to protect the Ambassador Bridge’s monopoly over the Detroit-Windsor crossing, most prominently in a failed state ballot measure and lawsuits.

“The only reason the bridge is still a story is because of Matty Moroun,” said Sandy Baruah, CEO of the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce and a firm supporter of a new bridge.

Moroun and his spokespeople did not respond to repeated requests for comment made over several weeks.

The bridge has received all permits required by governments on both sides of the border. The U.S. Congress needs to appropriate $250 million for the customs plaza, which some bridge supporters fear could be held up by Washington’s unusually strong partisan divisions. And the U.S. Coast Guard needs to issue a permit for shipping traffic on the Detroit River around the new bridge.

Originally posted in The Chicago Tribune