Bridge banter

Mar 11, 2009 at 12:00 am

He lacks Canadian government approval for the Windsor side of a second span he wants to build across the Detroit River alongside his Ambassador Bridge.

He failed to get needed blessing from a state board for $787 million in private activity bonds before a March 6 deadline imposed by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

He's been unable to halt the progress of a publicly financed bridge that would seriously cut into his profits and eliminate the need for that second span he's racing to build.

And a powerful Michigan congressman wrangled a March 17 public hearing to discuss a U.S. Coast Guard study that (incredibly) found there would be no significant environmental impact from his proposed bridge.

If "he" were anyone but Ambassador Bridge owner Manuel J. (Matty) Moroun, we'd think the controversial project was dead in the water, so to speak.

But we're learned not to underestimate Moroun, the reclusive Grosse Pointe Shores bazillionaire. He and his people are showing no signs of slowing the project to build a second bridge that Moroun would own, operate and profit from.

As he pursues that golden fleece, Moroun has received plenty of help from public officials as he attempts to overcome the recent would-be setbacks. Michigan Senate Republicans, especially, seem concerned about protecting Matty's considerable interest. That was evident last week when they conducted their own hearing — it was a grilling, really — into Michigan Strategic Fund's failure to approve Moroun's bonds.

A little background: A year ago, Moroun's Warren-based Detroit International Bridge Company applied for the low-interest bonds from the U.S. Department of Transportation to pay for approximately 80 percent of the $1 billion second span. (Yes, the one the Canadians don't want.) In January's final days of the Bush administration, the feds gave conditional backing for the funding, making it contingent upon approval from the Michigan Strategic Fund by the March 6 deadline.

But when the Fund's 10-member board met Feb. 25, three members were absent and three others recused themselves from the vote. Two of those were new members who said they didn't have enough information to make a decision and a third works as bond counsel for a law firm and said there would be a conflict if he voted.

The remaining four board members did not constitute a quorum, so no approval for the $787 million bonds could be given.

Following that meeting, the Senate Commerce and Tourism Committee, chaired by Sen. Jason Allen (R-Traverse City), and the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, chaired by Sen. Bill Hardiman (R-Kentwood), scheduled last week's hearing at the Capitol.

"The board's failure to act could have a devastating impact on the Michigan economy," Allen said ominously in opening the hearing. "There has been a significant amount of concern raised by our caucus on this issue."

They wondered why members could not have attended the meeting by telephone to at least cast a vote. At one point, committee member Sen. Tony Stamas (R-Midland) waved his cell phone as prop to make his point. "Lord knows we're all connected to our phones. They tend to follow us wherever we go," he said.

"These people are voluntary members of the Michigan Strategic Fund. They're not on our staff," explained James McBryde, the director of governmental affairs for the Michigan Economic Development Corp., the state agency that administers the Michigan Strategic Fund. "These are high-quality people, and they're also very busy running companies."

Allen suggested law enforcement could help round up wayward board members if they miss future meetings. "If you need the Michigan State Police to go and get these people, we could," he said.

Sen. Glenn Anderson (D-Westland), the lone Democrat who sat through the entire hearing last week, called it as he saw it.

"I think this hearing is more of an effort to create pressure on the Strategic Fund board to make a decision favorable to the bridge interests," he said.

This week the U.S. Department of Transportation gave Moroun until June to secure Michigan Strategic Fund approval. The board has meetings scheduled for March 18 and April 29, so Allen should have plenty of time to call out the state troopers to round up board members.

Still, if there's any public pressure to be had, Tuesday's hearing is the next opportunity. To build the second span Moroun needed a U.S. Coast Guard environmental study. He got it.

Released last month, the 173-page report finds no need for noise-reduction measures, air pollution controls or need for trees around a new span, says state Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit), who disputes the conclusion. "That finding of no significant impact raised a lot of questions, questions that can be litigated," she says. Tlaib testified at the Strategic Fund hearing against the bonding for Moroun.

"We're going to have another round of this," Tlaib says.

According to the Federal Register, the March 17 public hearing about the Coast Guard report comes at the urging of U.S. Rep. John Dingell (D-Dearborn.)

"The U.S. Coast Guard does not normally hold a public meeting on the Final Environmental Assessment, which is why Congressman Dingell requested one," Dingell spokesman Adam Benson tells News Hits. "Given the economic importance of this project to both southeastern Michigan and Canada, it is important that the process is open and fair and that interested parties have every opportunity to participate."

Tlaib plans to be there.

Meanwhile, attempts to build a publicly financed crossing near the Delray area of Detroit took a step forward last month when the U.S. Department of Transportation issued environmental approvals for the Detroit River International Crossing, which is a joint effort by the Michigan Department of Transportation, the U.S. Federal Highway Administration, Transport Canada and Ontario's Ministry of Transportation. Those four units of government want to use taxpayer money to build a bridge estimated to cost at least $1.5 billion.

Moroun, wanting to protect his monopoly control of the highly lucrative Detroit-Windsor bridge business, fiercely opposes that project. Oddly, as Crain's Business Detroit recently reported, Moroun whines (our word, not theirs) that the public bridge not only provides unfair competition to his private enterprise, but also that it's not needed because border traffic — which took a downturn following 9/11 — has declined even further because of the economic crisis.

In other words, the only second bridge that's really needed is the one that will stuff more dollars into Matty's pockets. Otherwise, fuggetaboudit.

And, speaking of stuffing dollars into pockets, News Hits — always on the lookout for a good time — thought we'd check out just how much ol' Matty's been tossing in the direction of state officials.

Campaign finance records on the Michigan Secretary of State website show Moroun has given $60,000 to the House Republican Campaign Committee since 2004. Another $5,000 went to the Michigan Republican Party in 2006, and $5,000 to the Senate Democratic Fund in 2007. Bridge company employees and Moroun family members have given more than $180,000 to state candidates, parties and political action committees since 1997, according to the online records.

Moroun gave Allen's campaign $500 in 2001 and Hardiman's $1,000 in 2007, according to campaign. (News Hits hates to think candidates could be bought so cheaply.)

The hearing on the Coast Guard report will be at 6 p.m. at Earhart Middle School, 1000 Scotten St., Detroit.

News Hits is edited by Curt Guyette. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]