A statesman emerges

After years of Ambassador Bridge antics, Snyder gets it

Jan 26, 2011 at 12:00 am

Joel Thurtell, the man who has done more than anyone to raise our consciousnesses about the troll who owns the Ambassador Bridge, was driving across Pennsylvania last week.

He and his wife were going to visit their son in Connecticut (the boy got a job!), so he wasn't paying attention to the new governor's State of the State speech last Wednesday night.

You can hardly blame him. Throughout eight State of the State speeches, Jennifer Granholm hardly ever uttered a thought that had any more permanence than a soap bubble. What we had every reason to expect from the new governor were cheerful platitudes.

Yet that's not what we got. Rick Snyder stood up, took a decisive stand. "It's time to build the Detroit River International Crossing Bridge," he said flatly. No waffling, no hedging, no silliness.

His reasons were simple. The bridge will be needed for trade and our economy in the future. Building it will produce many jobs. And right now, as the self-styled nerd said, Job One is jobs.

OK, he tripped over his words a bit. His delivery was somewhat wooden, and lacked the tinkling effervescence of his predecessor. He sounded, in other words, like a real person.

But this governor said something worth saying. This governor had the guts to stand up to the social parasite who for years has bought off politicians of both parties with lavish campaign donations, especially his fellow Republicans.

Beyond that, he did something absolutely brilliant. The man who "wasn't a politician" went to Washington and negotiated an astonishingly shrewd deal for the State of Michigan.

Canada, as is well-known, wants and needs the DRIC bridge so much that it has offered to lend Michigan up to $550 million to cover the state's share of the construction costs. No muss, no fuss. Not even any real strings. We don't have to pay it back till the bridge is built, at which time the state will pay it back out of our share of the bridge's toll revenue — amazing.

But the new governor did better. Snyder went to the Obama administration and parlayed that into an arrangement where the money Canada is lending us can count as matching funds for federal highway money. In other words, somebody else puts up $550 million we get to use — and the state gets about $2 billion plus from the feds. How could anybody turn that down?

Perhaps the best indication of how big a coup this was could be seen in the stunned silence coming from the tower of Barad-dûr — oops, I meant the Ambassador Bridge Company.

Normally, a spokesman has been there with spin and outright lies whenever anyone said anything favorable about DRIC. This time, nothing ... until the next day, when spokesman Phil Frame had a simple comment. He was quitting.

Naturally, this had nothing to do with the governor's announcement, he said. That's OK, Phil; I happen to be a virgin too. Actually, whether he was fired or decided to scurry down the mooring rope before the ship sank was neither clear, nor very interesting.

But that someone stood up to Manuel J. "Matty" Moroun was. For years, this billionaire slumlord has bought off members of the Legislature, mostly Republicans, with lavish campaign contributions. Moroun's aim was simple: Kill any attempt to build the DRIC, the proposed internationally owned Detroit River International Crossing bridge two miles south of his aging span.

No matter that his bridge is wearing out, and the government of Canada has made it clear that it will not let him build another. No matter that a new bridge would create at least 10,000 jobs, mostly high-paying ones, when Michigan desperately needs them. No matter that every major corporate leader and most politicians of both parties support the DRIC bridge. No matter that our economy would literally be wiped out if something happened to the Ambassador Bridge.

We've had the best politicians money can buy — and Matty Moroun spent lavishly — more than a half-million dollars in the last election cycle alone. The Republican senators he purchased in the past did his bidding, by any means necessary. Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop, a Rochester Hills Republican with a head full of gel, had promised a vote on the bridge. But Matty evidently told him no. So Bishop broke his promise and prevented any vote from happening a month ago. (Fortunately, however, he's now out of government, thanks to term limits.)

Things were looking bleak for our future. The Ambassador Bridge, built in 1929, is wearing out. It wasn't built for today's monster rigs. Moroun said he would build a new one right next to it — but the government of Canada said absolutely not.

Twinning the Ambassador Bridge made no sense, from either a traffic flow or environmental standpoint. What looked likely to eventually happen was freight traffic would end up being diverted to Buffalo, which would hurt our battered economy even more, and make any chance of an economic revival that much more unlikely.

Then things started turning against Moroun. Not due to the unthinking local media. They mainly applauded him, even when, a few years ago, he cooked up a deal with Kwame Kilpatrick, when the felon was still mayor.

Matty was going to sell the ruin of the old train station to Detroit, which would turn it into a new police headquarters. Fortunately, that fell apart when people quickly learned it would cost far less to build a new headquarters from scratch.

Yet nobody paid attention to Moroun — until, in September 2008, Thurtell reported on his blog that Moroun had seized portions of a city park, hung phony Homeland Security signs on a fence, and had a shotgun-toting goon try to evict him.

Thurtell kept chronicling Matty's bad behavior until he finally shamed the city into suing to get their public property back. Finally, the so-called mainstream media started to pay some attention.

Eventually editorial pages turned against the creature, once they realized that Ford, Chrysler, General Motors and anyone else not on the take was against Moroun as well.

Federal and state courts ruled against Moroun, again and again, but he kept appealing. Earlier this month Wayne County Circuit Judge Prentis Edwards finally threw the president of the bridge company, Dan Stamper, in jail for a few hours.

What happens now is not clear. It is hard to imagine that our governor won't be able to get legislation passed that will allow the Detroit River International Crossing to become reality. Yet, incredibly, there are still legislators — mostly Snyder's fellow Republicans — who remain supporters of Moroun, such as state Sen. Roger Kahn. Moroun is expected to continue to fight hard, if not fair, and to launch more lawsuits and other delaying actions.

Hopefully, however, our new governor has the clout to get this done, now. Thurtell, by the way, has never been a flatterer of any politician, much less one who wears the label Republican.

He was sitting in the movie Little Fockers when the governor made his announcement. When he learned what had happened, he wrote on his blog (joelontheroad.com), "Pinch me. Is this real?

"At last we have a leader willing to stand up and say that the wishes of one selfish billionaire should not hold the state back from the economic development we need. Thank you, Governor Snyder."

All of which goes to show that you just never can tell.