Michigan voters spoke, but Morouns don’t seem to listen

Jack Lessenberry | November 16, 2012

DETROIT — Suppose the day after the presidential election, Mitt Romney had his spokesman announce that he didn’t accept the verdict, that he now believed President Obama wasn’t a legitimate president because he was born in Kenya, or maybe on Pluto, and that he might sue to prevent Mr. Obama from staying in office.

Sound farfetched? Well, no more so than the latest antics from Michigan’s least-beloved billionaire, Ambassador Bridge owner Manuel Moroun. After months of trying to preserve his monopoly with a shameless and misleading ballot proposal campaign called “Let the People Decide,” the people did, indeed, decide.

The Morouns didn’t like the verdict one bit.

On Election Day. Michigan voters overwhelmingly rejected Proposal 6, a state constitutional amendment designed to protect the Moroun family’s monopoly on moving billions of dollars’ worth of goods across the Detroit River.

Mr. Moroun, his wife, Nora, and son Matthew are the sole owners of the Ambassador Bridge, the only place between Buffalo and Port Huron, Mich., where heavy automotive components and other freight can be hauled across the Detroit River.

The Ambassador, which was built in 1929, is showing increasing signs of wear, including holes in the pavement and roadbed. For years, political and business leaders have argued that a new bridge is needed.

This year, they did something about it. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, a pro-business Republican, and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper signed a deal in June to build a second bridge, tentatively called the New International Trade Crossing, about two miles south of the Ambassador Bridge.

The deal was an amazing bargain for Michigan. Canada agreed to cover, upfront, all of Michigan’s costs, an estimated $550 million. They would be repaid only when the bridge is built years from now, out of the state’s share of tolls.

Additionally, Washington agreed that the Canadian cash can be used as matching funds for a federal highway grant, meaning Michigan should get $2.2 billion in badly needed money to fix the state’s roads, free of charge.

But if that was a good deal for citizens, it enraged the 85-year-old Mr. Moroun, who is believed to make as much as $140 million a year from tolls and sales of gasoline and items from his duty-free shops. He has contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to Michigan lawmakers’ campaigns and pet causes, and was able to block any bridge bill from coming to a vote in the Legislature.

However, Governor Snyder found a clause in the state Constitution that enabled him to bypass the Legislature by making an “interlocal” agreement with Canada. The Morouns then spent at least $34 million to try to muscle an amendment protecting their monopoly into the state Constitution.

First, they paid out-of-state firms to collect the needed signatures to put the proposal on the ballot. Next, they flooded the airwaves with incessant commercials that the nonpartisan Michigan Truth Squad said were “flagrantly foul,” as in, false.

Canada’s consul general in Detroit, Roy Norton, was peeved that Michigan business interests, primarily the Detroit Three automakers, didn’t fund an ad campaign to counter Mr. Moroun’s.

It wasn’t needed. The voters didn’t buy Mr. Moroun’s lies.

Those who went to the polls rejected the Moroun amendment by a stunning 844,000 votes. Yet the next morning, Moroun spokesman Mickey Blashfield acted as if the election never had occurred.

“It would be a mistake to assume taxpayers support a flawed government bridge that puts taxpayers at risk,” he said. He then charged the proposed new bridge was going to be built over “unstable salt mine foundations.”

The salt mine charge was dismissed with a laugh by a spokesman for the governor, who said of the bridge project: “It’s full steam ahead.”

But Sandy Baruah, president of the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce, said he expects the Moroun family to file more lawsuits to stall the new bridge.

“They use the court system like I use the bathroom,“ Mr. Baruah told Crain’s Detroit Business. Mr. Baruah, a supporter of the new bridge, added that for the Morouns, flinging even hopeless lawsuits makes sense. If they can delay a new bridge even a year, that means millions of dollars more in profit for their monopoly.

Even in a best-case scenario, ground for the new bridge is unlikely to be broken before late next year. The soonest a new bridge could open is 2017.

Meanwhile, the Morouns are attempting to confuse things further by alternatively saying a new bridge isn’t needed, and that they intend to build a second one next to the Ambassador anyway.

Canadian government officials say they never would allow that to happen, because environmental concerns and traffic congestion. They also openly loathe and distrust Mr. Moroun.

What may be most baffling is why an 85-year-old man whose net worth is at least $1.5 billion thinks he needs more money, or whether the thrill is in the power a monopoly brings.

Perhaps not even Mr. Moroun really knows.

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade’s ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.

No billionaire bridge?

Jim Blake | November

Thirty million dollars just doesn’t buy what it used to.

American billionaire Matty Moroun was hoping his $30-million scare campaign to convince Michigan voters they will end up paying for a second Detroit-Windsor crossing would pay dividends in the Nov. 6 vote.

Instead, voters defeated Proposal 6, which would have required an amendment to Michigan’s constitution ordering a statewide vote on any international crossing. In the end, it wasn’t even close with more than 60% of voters rejecting Maroun’s heavily-backed effort.

The fact that Maroun thought his money would buy such a change is a demonstration of how he believes the world works.

The reaction from voters is a demonstration that some things aren’t for sale.

Maroun has every right to wield his power and influence to get what’s in his best interest. His best interest is the status quo, in which his ownership of the Ambassador Bridge is a monopoly for truck traffic using the busiest international crossing between the United States and Canada.

The second best scenario for him would be another span he would own so that he can continue without competition.

For those of us not named Matty Maroun, a second bridge operated independently is exactly what should happen.

In terms of economy (moving goods on a more timely basis) the environment (less time spent idling by thousands of trucks) and security (the threat of terrorism) a second span makes sense.

It’s difficult to imagine a better scenario for Michigan. A billion-dollar span with Canada paying the full cost and a promise that tolls will only be paid on the Canadian side makes it more than attractive.

Government promises have been known to vanish but if it comes down to it, better to trust a government which eventually has to answer for its actions than a private individual who answers only to himself.

The list of those in favour of the proposed span include Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Canada’s ambassador to the U.S., Gary Doer, governments of Great Lakes states and provinces, Ontario’s MIA premier, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, the Windsor-Essex Regional Chamber of Commerce and the Detroit Regional Chamber

No doubt, Maroun has more legal challenges up his sleeve but there is a possibility, given his defeat and the looming prospect of competition, that he might just want to hold onto a few million for a rainy day.

– Jim Blake

– QMI Agency

Tempers Flare Over Villain-In-Chief At Southwest Detroit Bridge Permit Hearing

Nov. 14th | Deadline Detroit

It was supposed to be a routine state permit hearing in a Southwest Detroit school, but nothing that involves Matty Moroun is routine.

Neighborhood residents shouted at pro-Moroun speakers who rode in a chartered bus to a hearing on Ambassador Bridge company plans for a second span, reports WXYZ’s Tom Wait, who calls the session “bizarre and definitely very heated.” reports.

Local attendees, including a Democratic state legislator, accused the bridge company backers of being paid shills.

State Rep. Rashida Tlaib (right), who represents the area around the Ambassador Bridge, lashed out at Matty Moroun’s bridge company for bussing in the supporters.

When we asked those people who paid for their ride and why they came to the hearing we were referred to a spokesman for the group. He told Action News the group was not paid, and that they were only in attendance because they cared about the bridge issue.

Everyone in the group who spoke during the hearing delivered pro-Moroun testimonials to the state officials holding the session.

Bridge company president Dan Stamper told Wait: “These are some of the community groups we work with on other issues.”

The Department of Environmental Quality hearing at Western High involved the Moroun company’s request for renewal of construction permits.

Stamper told Action News Moroun has not given up on building a new bridge of his own, despite plans by the state and Canada to construct a new span.

Matty Moroun Could Sue To Stop New International Trade Crossing, Spokesman Hints

November 8, 2012 | Huffpost Detroit

Ambassador Bridge owner Manuel “Matty” Moroun couldn’t stop a new international bridge from being built in Detroit with a ballot measure. Now he may be counting on lawyers to do what voters wouldn’t do on election day.

On Tuesday poll-goers rejected Prop 6, a measure that would have required a statewide vote for state money to be spent on new international bridges. (Click here to see a HuffPost Blogger debate on the issue). Following that defeat, Mickey Blashfield, a Moroun spokesman who headed up The People Should Decide ballot committee supporting the proposal, hinted at a legal challenge to the planned international bridge between Detroit, Mich. and the Canadian border city of Windsor, ON.

“If the governmental proposal doesn’t collapse from the weight of legal and congressional scrutiny, the NITC will never be built over unstable salt mine foundations, where land speculators are lining up to get rich on the government’s tab,” Blashfield said in a statement published by the Huffington Post.

“Similar and serious financial, legal and logistical questions have already been raised regarding the viability of the NITC — questions Governor Snyder and his administration have still refused to answer directly,” he said in another statement released by the Detroit News.

The New International Trade Crossing, which is supported by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and the Canadian federal government, would compete with Moroun’s Ambassador Bridge for traffic and tolls.

On Wednesday Gov. Snyder said there might be “shovels in the ground” for the new bridge project in two to six months, the Detroit Free Press reports. A spokesman later clarified that the governor was speaking metaphorically about getting a U.S. Presidential Permit to go ahead with the project, adding that construction would likely take about two to three years to begin.

Moroun’s business, the Detroit International Bridge Company, spent more than $40 million opposing the new bridge through television ads and its support of the Proposal 6 campaign, according to The Michigan Campaign Finance Network.

“We are happy with the investment made in this campaign on behalf of taxpayers and the 5,000 families employed by Ambassador Bridge family of companies,” Blashfield said of the campaign in release published by The Huffington Post. “Like any family business, we would do it again – and will in different ways – to defend economic freedom and limited government.”

With Mich. bridge building amendment blocked; new span is in works

David Patch | Blade Staff Writer

DETROIT — With an amendment to Michigan’s constitution that potentially would have blocked construction of a new bridge to Canada soundly defeated Tuesday, officials leading the project now are waiting for the issuance of various government permits before the so-called New International Trade Crossing project proceeds.

Ken Silfven, deputy press secretary to Gov. Rick Snyder, said Michigan’s application to the U.S. Department of State for a president’s permit to allow a new border crossing, filed in August, is one of several such steps that needs to be completed before land acquisition and other project development.

Although the border-crossing permit could be issued yet this year, “realistically, it could go into next year,” Mr. Silfven said Wednesday, a day after Michigan voters defeated the constitutional amendment. It was petitioned by a citizens’ group, The People Should Decide, organized and bankrolled by billionaire Manuel “Matty” Moroun, whose company owns the Ambassador Bridge between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario.

Mr. Silfven said a U.S. Coast Guard permit for building a structure in a navigable waterway — the Detroit River — also must be secured, along with a “Buy America” waiver to allow use of Canadian-made steel to build the part of the bridge located in the United States. A governing board for the new bridge needs to be appointed too, he said.

It will be “a good year or two” before any actual construction begins, the gubernatorial spokesman said, adding that “we do expect the Ambassador Bridge owners will stick to their playbook” with further litigation.

Roy Norton, Canada’s consul general in Detroit, shared Mr. Silfven’s perspectives both on the project’s timeline and the likelihood of further conflict with the Moroun-owned Detroit International Bridge Co.

Legislation pending in Canada’s Parliament would make the Canadian permitting process for the new bridge immune from legal challenge once it is completed, Mr. Norton said, with the intended goal of keeping the project from being subjected to extended litigation delays.

“The permits won’t be issued until after the legislation passes,” which Mr. Norton said may also occur by year’s end. “We’ll bulletproof the permits before they’re issued,” he said.

The consul general said that while polls taken close to the election showed a likely defeat for the constitutional amendment, “nothing suggested a 20 percent margin, and that’s a pretty pronounced rejection of the Moroun effort.

“The voters have spoken. Hopefully, a potential major impediment has been averted,” Mr. Norton said, before adding, “We anticipate litigation, because that’s what the Morouns do.”

Telephone calls Wednesday to the Detroit International Bridge Co. were not answered.

A study by the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor estimated 12,000 jobs would be created for each of the four to five years of construction, and more than 8,000 permanent jobs would be created in southeast Michigan once the bridge is open.

Companies in Ohio that have Ontario operations or customers also are expected to benefit from faster, more reliable travel times.

Mr. Norton is to be in Toledo today to meet with Mayor Mike Bell, with discussion likely to include the bridge project and mutual economic development issues.

“I think the vote is great,” Mr. Bell said Wednesday.

“One of the reasons I think that is that we are constantly talking about developing the corridor from here all the way up to the Canadian border, so the idea that there is the potential for a new bridge that is a bit closer to the city of Toledo, that could increase the commerce we are doing in Canada as well as northern America, and that is a benefit to everybody.”

The new bridge, which would cross the Detroit River from Windsor’s Brighton Beach neighborhood to the Delray section of southwest Detroit, is expected to cost about $4 billion to build, including toll and Customs plazas, land acquisition, and approaches on either side.

It would connect with I-75 at the Delray end and Ontario Highway 401 in Canada, bypassing not only the Ambassador Bridge but also Windsor’s stoplight-ridden Huron Church Road.

The construction agreement that Governor Snyder and Stephen Harper, Canada’s prime minister, announced in June calls for Canada to finance the project completely, then recoup Michigan’s $550 million share of construction costs through toll collection.

That arrangement bypassed any appropriation of funds by the Michigan Legislature, where Mr. Moroun’s political allies had blocked funding.

The Ambassador Bridge, completed in 1929, is Canada’s busiest border crossing and the only one in the Detroit area suitable for large trucks.

An artery for an estimated $100 billion in annual automotive trade alone, it is prone to congestion during peak hours and when lanes are closed for maintenance, and its age worries business leaders who fear the cost and delays they would incur should it ever be closed or restricted to heavy vehicles.

Even without a catastrophe, the U.S. Department of Transportation estimates that by 2030, congestion will cost U.S. and Canadian industry $17.8 billion per year.

“Any time you get hung up, it costs you time and certainly costs you money,” Bill Ford, Jr., executive chairman of Ford Motor Co., told reporters during a June ceremony to announce the agreement. “This will be a huge boost to us as we send parts, powertrains, and vehicles back and forth across the border.”

The Detroit International Bridge Co. has proposed building a second bridge parallel to the Ambassador — a bridge still depicted on the Ambassador’s Web site, even though Canada has repeatedly denied permit applications.

Mr. Moroun’s campaign against a publicly built bridge has argued that it would destroy his private business and cost Michigan taxpayers theoretical construction overruns and operating expenses.

Mr. Norton disputed Wednesday that cross-border traffic is a zero-sum game: “Anything that will help the regional economy is going to cause traffic to grow.” He also proposed that The People Should Decide’s $33 million advertising campaign running up to the vote was counterproductive because it made people question how Mr. Moroun could afford to spend so much on the matter.

“They drew too much attention to themselves by spending grotesque amounts of money,” the consul general said.

Staff writer Ignazio Messina contributed to this report.

Contact David Patch at: dpatch@theblade.com or 419-724-6094.

I Don’t Care What Mickey Blashfield Thinks, And Why You Shouldn’t Either

Jeff Wattrick | Deadline Detroit

One of the most positive outcomes of Tuesday’s election is a serious, though probably fleeting, conversation about how politics are covered.

The technocratic polling analysts won the night while the traditional “this is how things played out in 1976” pundits were revealed as, well, as idiots.

This conversation needs to go beyond simply Nate Silver > Dick Morris, even if such an acknowledgement is long overdue.

Morris’ combination of wishful thinking and horse shit is a symptom of a larger media problem. We give well-credentialed individuals far too much leeway to offer baseless, objectively false opinions as though they were credible ideas.

Consider Matty Moroun’s response to the defeat of his $32 million Proposal 6, designed to block the new Detroit-Windsor border crossing.

Here is Moroun lackey Mickey Blashfield bleeting out a talking point in the Detroit News.

“It is clear the voters resisted amending the constitution, but it would be a mistake to assume taxpayers support a flawed government bridge that puts taxpayers at risk,” said Blashfield, director of The People Should Decide.

For one thing, no one supports a “flawed” anything that “puts taxpayers at risk.” It’s one thing to be skeptical of claims from politicians on both sides of the border about the bridge, and one should always be skeptical of political promises. However, the Anderson Economic Group’s independent analysis that the politicians are (this time) telling the truth settles this matter like 2+2=4.

Yet Blashfield was allowed to repeat this “taxpayers at risk” lie in numerous print and broadcast reports this week, leaving readers and viewers with the impression there exists legitimate concerns about the bridge’s impact on future tax bills.

Worse, Blashfield’s premise that voter opposition to their proposal shouldn’t be viewed as a tacit endorsement of the new bridge plan simply isn’t rooted in reality. Blashfield’s own “Let The People Decide” campaign called this shot. They were the people who invented Prop. 6 and made it a quasi-referendum on a bridge plan with broad bi-partisan, bi-national, business-labor support.

So why exactly would it be “a mistake to assume taxpayers” don’t support the bridge plan? Can Team Moroun cite data to back their counterintuitive assumption?

Michigan voters decided Tuesday that they’d prefer leaving infrastructure decisions, like building a new international bridge, to the people we elect and pay to make those decisions. And the people we elected to make this decision believe this bridge is necessary.

Matty Moroun spend $32 million to give the opportunity to say so if we felt otherwise. We didn’t.

At this point, his lackey’s opinions about what Michigan residents believe have as much credibility as Dick Morris’s projections or the street corner lunatic who says Pope Clement III is controlling his thoughts with lasers.

Look, I don’t blame the Detroit News or anyone else for quoting Blashfield here. That’s how the game is played. What I am saying is let’s take this moment to pondering changing the game for the better..

Baseless assertions debunked by objective facts simply aren’t newsworthy, even if they come from a billionaire’s spokesman. Let’s stop printing or airing them.

Michigan Bridge Project Clears Election Day Hurdle

Ryan Holeywell | November 7, 2012

Money can’t always buy elections.

That’s the takeaway after Michiganders rejected a constitutional amendment backed largely by a single family that felt threatened by the prospect for a new international bridge advanced by Gov. Rick Snyder.

Snyder and Canadian officials earlier this year agreed to a plan for a new internatinoal crossing between Detroit and Windsor that offered Michigan a stunning opportunity: The costs of the $950 million tollroad would be fronted entirely by the Canadian government.

Backers of the project, known as the New International Trade Crossing, called it a big victory for both state taxpayers and Snyder, ensuring Michigan would have access to expanded infrastructure integral to its economic future while not saddling them with the financial risks of such an ambitious project.

But the wealthy Moroun family, which controls the privately-owned Ambassador Bridge and would see reduced traffic — and revenue — from a competitng structure, backed a multi-million dollar campaign that threatened to sideline the project.

That campaign, known as The People Should Decide, backed a proposed constitutional amendment that would have required a statewide vote on any new international bridge.

The campaign, which took in nearly $28 million according to campaign finance records, was financially backed almost entirely by a Moroun-controlled holding corporation. Voters rejected that amendment by a 60 percent margin, according to the Detroit Free Press.

“People made clear in Tuesday’s election that they believe in Michigan’s future and support the governor’s vision of moving forward so we can grow our economy and create jobs,” Snyder spokesman Ken Silfven said. “It’s a great win for Michigan because we get thousands of short- and long-term jobs, and a modern international crossing, at no cost to our taxpayers thanks to the generosity of our Canadian friends. You can’t beat that.”

Governing was unable to reach Kenneth Dobson, the Ambassador Bridge’s director of governmental affairs, by phone Wednesday morning.

The campaign for the proposal drew strong rebukes from a variety of observers, including many of the state’s top newspapers, which called its advertisements misleading. The effort was “a blatant attempt to bamboozle Michiganders into protecting the selfish interests of a single family,” according to a Lansing State Journal editorial.

Still, the defeat of the amendment doesn’t mean the bridge will open — or even begin construction — anytime soon. A bridge authority charged with soliciting bids must be formed. The structure of a deal with a private partner needs to be determined. Enviromental reviews need to be completed. Land needs to be acquired. And state officials say they fully expect a slew of lawsuits related to the project, which makes it challenging to predict a timeline.

Silfven says state officials are hoping to soon get a federal permit for the bridge, which is required for all new international border crossings. “Once that happens, other pieces can start falling into place.”