The Toronto Star
By David Olive
There really is a troll under the Ambassador Bridge spanning the Detroit River at one of the world’s most congested transit points. His name is Manuel “Matty” Moroun. It’s a name worth remembering as symbolic of what’s toxic about America’s political culture.
A second crossing, by the reckoning of Michigan political and business leaders, would kick-start economic recovery in one of America’s states hardest hit by the global recession.
Governor Rick Snyder, a Republican, regards a second crossing as “critically important” to his vision of a rejuvenated Detroit as a major hub of international trade. The influx of Canadian tourists alone, no longer dissuaded by the notorious Ambassador Bridge bottleneck, could boost Michigan’s GDP by some 10 per cent. It’s all good, as the kids say.
And also not to be, after a five-year battle. On Thursday, a Michigan legislative committee killed a proposed joint Canadian-U.S. consortium’s bid to build a $2.2-billion bridge to compete with Moroun’s.
Moroun’s fingerprints were all over the outcome. The Ambassador Bridge owner dipped into his estimated net worth of $1.7 billion for a $5-million campaign of TV ads spreading the disinformation that a second crossing would be a taxpayer albatross.
Moroun recruited the Tea Party-funding Koch brothers, Charles and David, to kick in more millions for a mass-mailing to Michiganders spreading the same untruths. In the most recent election cycle, Moroun spent $565,000 in campaign donations to influential lawmakers in Lansing, the state capital. Moroun even recruited the slippery Dick Morris, strategist for hire for both major political parties and lately a Fox News talking head, as an advisor on legislative arm-twisting.
At 84, Moroun is two years older than the rickety Ambassador, world’s longest suspension bridge on completion in 1929, when a crank-handle was still required to start most cars then on the road.
An octogenarian relic no less than Moroun, who expects politicians who are bought to stay bought, as the saying goes, the Ambassador accounts for annual delays of 5.2 million hours for the 7,200 trucks crossing it each day.
The cargo of those vehicles is worth a staggering $150 billion a year. And the delays are costing Ford Motor Co. alone an estimated annual $13.5 million in productivity losses on the 600 or so trucks Ford sends across the U.S.-Canada border each day.
An estimated eight million jobs in the U.S., mostly in the economically crippled Midwest, depend on the Detroit-Windsor crossing.
For Canada, border delays add to production costs as manufactured goods repeatedly cross the border in the process of assembly. That costs Canada – and mostly the Ontario economy – between 1 per cent and 2 per cent of GDP, or between $15 billion and $30 billion a year.
Those costs, by the calculation of Université d’Laval economist Stephen Gordon, are big enough to offset the benefits of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
But the public interest does not overly tax Moroun’s thinking. Neither does logic.
In fact, Michigan’s costs would be minimal for a second bridge. Bonds issued by a newly created authority financing the bridge would not be guaranteed by Michigan. And Canada has offered Michigan $550 million in loans to finance the U.S. approach roads to a new bridge, to be recouped from tolls. “This is Canada’s No. 1 national infrastructure priority,” says Roy Norton, Canada’s consul general in Detroit.
That the proposed second bridge would be publicly owned but privately run is a distinction that doesn’t matter to the Kochs. The free-market ideologues have bought Moroun’s self-depiction as a beleaguered private citizen crushed under the iron boot of the state.
Yet there’s not a thimble’s worth of validity to Moroun’s stated justifications in defending his monopoly.
He claims that with Ambassador traffic having dropped 40 per cent since 2000, his bridge would be put out of business by a second crossing.
Yes, traffic has declined as Moroun’s bridge has become more decrepit. Many frustrated truckers schlep to the Blue Water Bridge at the Sarnia-Port Huron crossing, which was twinned not long ago. Or they try their luck with the three bridges at Niagara.
Yet Moroun also insists he wants to build his own second bridge. It would be another privately owned and thus, by his lights, wholesome enterprise. Except that Moroun’s been making this pledge for eons. And why would he do it if, as Moroun claims, a second crossing would put his Ambassador Bridge out of business?
With a straight face, Moroun’s son, Matthew, celebrated this week’s family victory by claiming “The Ambassador Bridge is the most efficient border crossing in North America.” He should pass that news to Bloomberg BusinessWeek, which last month asserted that “Few would deny the traffic jams on the Ambassador are anything other than epic.”
Think of it as amoral leverage: the reckless or calculated self-interest of just one or a tiny group of people in triggering a global recession. Or in turning on its head the centuries-old philosophy of the greatest good for the greatest number.
Moroun has long been scorned locally for his toll hikes, aging customs-inspection plazas and treacherous access roads. Yet he has held sway over two national governments that want a second crossing, two mayors, a U.S. county executive, most of the Democratic caucus in Lansing, and pretty much the entire Southwest Michigan business establishment, including chief mascot Bill Ford Jr.
That says more about the supine character of the bridge supporters than Moroun.
Rarely but occasionally in this capitalist part of the world, private property rights are trumped by the public interest.
In the dead of night, then-Chicago mayor Richard Daley simply bulldozed a seldom-used regional airport that stubbornly held out against the Millennium project for his city’s justly famed waterfront.
In the 1990s, then-Texas Rangers executive George W. Bush prevailed on Austin to expropriate private land in a Dallas-Fort Worth suburb for his new Ballpark at Arlington. Pierre Trudeau invoked eminent domain in seizing land in Pickering, when he had designs on a second Toronto airport.
“Everyone wants a private bridge,” says Michigan Lieutenant Governor Brian Calley, Snyder’s point man in trying to win legislative approval for a second crossing. “The question is, do they want a private bridge for one politically active family with exclusive access to a monopoly.”
So far, that view has not proved winsome in Lansing. Instead, Moroun’s undisguised self-interest has won the day with legislators whose campaign war chests are stuffed with who knows how many tens of thousands of dollars in donations from the troll under the Ambassador Bridge.