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.