Wisdom trumps politics in getting a second Detroit bridge to Canada

There’s something like 30,000 parts in every car.

Here in the nation’s auto capital, we know full well that successfully building a car that works is no small matter, requiring experience, patience and a smattering of good luck.

Over the last four years, we’ve seen much the same factors at play in two complex events, both involving a bewildering number of moving parts. The first is the now successfully concluded Detroit bankruptcy, which involved the right people in the right places making the right decisions about a very complicated and contentious matter.

The second biggie has at last come together: The New International Trade Crossing, the bridge across the Detroit River, which features complex international economics and also persistent ‒ and ugly ‒ politics. Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court resolved what should be the last real legal hurdle by refusing to hear a lawsuit blocking the bridge brought by the owner of the Ambassador Bridge and some community activists.

Douglas George, the new Canadian Consul General in Detroit, tells me the current state of play for the bridge is “ready to go.” Canadian Transport Minister Lisa Raitt says she expects the bridge to be in operation by 2020, though that may be a trifle optimistic. A public-private partnership will oversee the design, building and operation of the bridge, though financing will ultimately be guaranteed by the Canadian government.

“Obviously, with a project as big and complex as this one,” says George, “we’ll face various issues from day to day, but it’s largely a question of working through the various steps of design, land acquisition and construction.” As a diplomat whose previous posting was as Canadian ambassador to Kuwait but who grew up in Sarnia (on the Canadian side of the Blue Water Bridge), he is careful not to throw gas on the political fires that have burned brightly for years.

Most of those flames have been fanned by the efforts of Manuel (“Matty”) Moroun, the Ambassador Bridge’s owner, to maintain his monopoly. “I can’t even begin to guess how much time has been lost in dealing with the politics,” is all the consul general would say.

But the politics have been ferocious. Almost as soon as he took office in 2011, Gov. Rick Snyder endorsed a new bridge to Canada as a significant economic development project that would create thousands of jobs in Michigan. Canada is our nation’s biggest trading partner, and one quarter of all trade between the two nations comes across the 85-year-old Ambassador Bridge.

When politicians in Lansing and Washington started squawking about a new bridge, it didn’t take much imagination to figure out that the real source of difficulty was the Ambassador Bridge’s owner fighting to defend his monopoly position.

State campaign finance records show, for example, that Moroun started making big contributions early on. According to the Detroit Free Press, Moroun, his family, closest associates and company contributed nearly $500,000 to legislative candidates (mostly Republican) in the 2010 election and $1.5 million to congressional and legislative candidates in the 2009-2011 campaign cycle. Not only that, but they poured millions into an attempt to kill any new bridge through a statewide ballot initiative that lost in 2012.

Moroun did succeed in stopping any legislative approval of a new bridge in 2010, and many lawmakers ever since have been grumpy and reluctant to support a Michigan economic development project that will produce thousands of construction jobs in the near future and cement long-term trade relationships between the US and Canada and Michigan’s crucial place in them.

Thinking about all the money the Morouns have spent over the years in political contributions and legal bills, all I can say is that the Ambassador Bridge must be one helluva money-maker.

Another part of the complex of delays in bringing the NITC to completion has been, frankly, Washington. They first said they didn’t have the money to help build the bridge (the Canadians stepped forward) and then couldn’t find the $250 million or so to pay for the customs plaza on the American side (the Canadians recently stepped forward on that, too).

It now seems clear the financing of everything connected with this project will be met or guaranteed entirely by Canada, with ultimate costs defrayed by bridge tolls over the years.

Overall, the bridge will cost something like $2 billion, but the Canadians think it’s more than worth it: “A new Windsor-Detroit crossing remains one of Canada’s top infrastructure priorities," says Minister Raitt. Attentive readers will, no doubt, notice that the U. S. government, now paralyzed by partisan bickering, can’t even fund much-needed infrastructure projects for America, and that here in Michigan, a proposed sales tax increase to pay for new Michigan roads and other transportation infrastructure is likely in trouble.

Successfully getting money for infrastructure of any sort is tough. Lots of moving parts. Lots of money. And lots of politics. Governor Snyder and two successive Canadian Consuls General, Roy Norton and Douglas George, deserve credit for devoting the time, exerting the patience and having the long-term vision to persist.

Counting both the successful completion of the Detroit bankruptcy and the new bridge, Michigan is now batting two for two in a very, very tough league. Congratulations are due, all around.

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Patsy Cantrell
Tue, 03/03/2015 - 10:17am
Privatizing our roads and bridges is a serious mistake and so many governors have jumped ion that band to avoid raising taxes. The people lose control of their infrastructure and the end result of this carried to its extreme is comparable to gated communities. The ultimate in pushing cost to future generations. A similar move is under way to reduce the current taxpayer cost, particularly to reduce cost/increase profits for corporations, by robbing the elderly and workers of their accrued retirement benefits and pushing that cost to future generations .
Patsy Cantrell
Tue, 03/03/2015 - 10:20am
Please add a review or edit button. Some of us seriously need it.
Linda Pierucki
Tue, 03/03/2015 - 12:35pm
The new bridge can do wonders for Michigan's economic situation once completed. A great many people do not understand the transport business and dont understand the importance of a new crossing: Canada's automotive industry is centered on the outskirts of Windsor at the end of the E C Row connector. Without the bridge, the Ambassador is the only viable method of moving the auto freight by the shortest, fastest route. Because Maroun controls the Ambassador, he indirectly controls the entire auto industry in both Canada and the US. His money isnt just made on the bridge itself but via the network of freight and logistics companies he either owns outright or controls less directly. That monopoly situation allowed him to provide priority movement to his trucks (and likely cheaper bridge tolls), and forced the other carriers out of business in automotive. He took over the main logistics warehouses that consolidate and sort those auto parts for plants all over the US. The Ambassador is just one piece of his automotive control empire. Once you remove his bottleneck, he loses these monopoly advantages and he likely will lose a lot of his current freight contracts.Without those major freight contracts, someone else could open a competing system of consolidation warehouses that were removed from the residential areas of Detroit. There are plenty of underutilized warehouse spaces downriver closer to the new bridge-and truck traffic on Detroit's surface streets will go down considerably. Lest we cry for ole Matty's losses, he's no fool: he knows from his freight-hauling experience of the many offices and facilities needed to keeping international freight moving smoothly. So, he's restoring the old train station-perfect for customs brokers, transloader office space and other necessary peripheral border services. The average citizen does NOT see the huge potential for economic growth from completion of this new bridge. One needs to look only at Laredo, TX . .the largest, busiest international border crossing in the country: the Ambassador is second-largest . . .and a great many truckers actually drive the extra miles to Niagara, NY to avoid the mess in Detroit. The majority of Canadian truckers spend most of their week in the US-and use I-75 and I-94 heavily. There are opportunities to provide new business to offer them services, act as carrier terminals for Canadian trucks and electronic paperwork transfer locations for the under-wired independent trucker. Truck traffic can only increase with the new bridge-and we need to be poised to take full advantage of it. Witness the growth of Laredo, TX in the last 20 years . . a sleepy, dusty border town has transformed into a huge industrial area with truck terminals, warehouses and maintenance facilities. Laredo's population has doubled since 1990-with 39% of that growth since 2000. Whole new higher-end housing developments have sprung up north of town to house the families of the many executives moving there to oversee new headquarters for major corporations who import much of their product. That border activity is a large driver of Texas' economic strength. No state needs that more than Michigan! Let's get that bridge built!
Thu, 03/05/2015 - 6:57am
Very well articulated and written. My husband is a trucker and all you have said is true. Thank you for taking the time to write it.
Wed, 04/15/2015 - 2:32pm
The AB's true fear is that the new bridge will be a public entity supported by the public for the public. Using public funds for a publicly owned bridge, from border guards to all infrastructure,roads,highways etc. and not his. Of course he will continually whine about not getting equal from us ....the public. He will have to dig into his own pockets.
Tue, 03/03/2015 - 1:04pm
Some day Americans might really wake up and appreciate what a great neighbor and ally Canada is and has been. I hope the new bridge's ROI makes Michigan legislators forest green with envy.
Mike Power
Tue, 03/03/2015 - 1:45pm
Kudos Phil, great article.
david mathews
Wed, 03/04/2015 - 9:15am
Phil: In all fairness, if you are stating that most of the 500K went to republican state legislative candidates, you should qualify the 1.5 million in donations as well Mostly republican, too? mostly democratic?
Thu, 03/05/2015 - 3:27pm
Thanks for your question, David. The $1.5 million in the 2009-2011 cycle went mostly to Republican legislative and congressional candidates. Phil
Sun, 03/08/2015 - 4:03am
Phil: Could we be more precise about your 'mostly' - a percentage would be far more accurate. 'Mostly' means a lot of different things to different people. 90%, 70%, 51%?
Big D
Sun, 03/08/2015 - 9:10am
I don't know why (/sarc) this non-partisan commentator pointed out the role of some Republicans against bridge proposals. Think about it--we end up WITH the the bridge, and Michigan taxpayers aren't paying for it.
Sun, 03/08/2015 - 11:23am
Taxpayers are paying to the extent that toll revenues will be directed to Canada, not to the US. It all evens out. The blockheads have just delayed the process along with whatever other revenues will result.
John S.
Sun, 03/08/2015 - 11:22am
Although Moroun was unable to stop the new bridge, he profited from the delay, so the legal and political money was money well spent. It's a bit embarrassing how cheaply special interests can purchase access to, advocacy by, and the votes of Michigan legislators. The new bridge will be the most important infrastructure project in southeast Michigan for the next half century, and perhaps longer.
Mon, 03/09/2015 - 12:37pm
Can we cut threw all the clutter here, please? The new bridge was a forgone conclusion for only one reason. The existing bridge was considered a Department of Homeland Security risk from terrorist. A second bridge was the back-up or insurance in case of an interruption for the one. Building the second bridge was never a question. Where the crux came in was who would build, own and operate it. One way was with entirely private funds with no taxpayer liability or involvement. The other was what we see proposed today. Neither proposal would make a better bridge or not address the possible need. Mr. Moroun was the first to take action and had a plan that later was to be copied and blunted by the Granholm administration. Suddenly governments were interested and started to take action. Yes, that's when the political firestorm was created and raged on for years. I must add that the backlog of traffic and the counts of vehicle numbers were from an era gone by when the economy was good. Since 2008 those issues are not relevant. Perhaps some day in the future it will be, however all that is mute as terrorist threats for a new international bridge is the final driving force no matter who controls it. One must remember that the current proposal does not generate any tax revenue for either country and certainly not Michigan. Jobs? A pipeline was just turned down because the three year project was called temporary jobs. How long to build the bridge? What countries citizens have priority for those jobs? Hmmm........