Michigan or Moroun?

Michigan's economic future is at stake right now, in the state Senate. If you think times are bad, imagine what they'd be without the billions in trade that move across the Detroit River every year.

The vast majority of it moves across the Ambassador Bridge, which was built in 1929, is wearing out, and is not adequate for today's monster trucks and the vast payloads they carry. Heavy tractor-trailers can't go through the tunnel. There is essentially no backup route other than Port Huron or Buffalo, and our trade transportation system is being held hostage by one man, an arrogant billionaire named Manuel Moroun.

Now, we have the best chance ever to fix this. Everybody who understands this issue knows that we need to build a new bridge — and we have a golden opportunity to do so.

Meet the proposed new Detroit River International River Crossing, DRIC for short, to be built two miles downriver from the Ambassador. DRIC would be jointly owned by the United States and Canada, funded partly by private investors, and enable us to meet the trade, transportation and security issues of this century.

The United States wants this bridge. The government of Canada needs it. Republicans like Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson are behind it. So are the Ford Motor Co. and the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce. In Ohio, where the economy is closely linked to Michigan and Canada, the GOP-controlled state Senate passed a resolution supporting DRIC — unanimously.

Democrats like Gov. Jennifer Granholm want the bridge. So does state Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a young Muslim woman who represents the area that also includes the Ambassador Bridge. The Detroit News supports it; so, at long last, does the Free Press.

Michigan wouldn't even have to pay a cent. Knowing how cash-strapped and divided our state government now is, Canada made an astounding offer last month: They'll pay our share of the start-up costs needed, as much as $550 million. Later, when the DRIC bridge is up and running, they'll get it back out of the tolls.

What's more, experts say building the DRIC could create as many as 10,000 construction jobs. Voting for this should be the easiest decision our term-limited state legislators ever will have to make. Except for one thing. One man opposes the bridge. Manuel "Matty" Moroun, a short, squat, octogenarian billionaire. After arguing for years that a new span wasn't needed, Matty abruptly changed his mind and said he would build a new bridge.

Right next, that is, to his old one.

Yet Canada has made it clear they won't allow him to do that. They won't give him the permits. Nor, for that matter, will the United States — the U.S. Coast Guard rejected his application last March. Indeed, two bridges in the same place would be an environmental, security and highway-clogging disaster.

This seems to have thrown Moroun into a desperate frenzy. He clearly cannot bear the thought of losing his monopoly. What makes this so puzzling is why he should care. Nobody is talking about taking the Ambassador Bridge away from him. What in hell does Matty have to fear? Moroun is worth much more than a billion dollars. He has only one son, and, to put it gently and delicately, the Old Man is far from immortal.

He turns 83 this month. That means that even if they started the DRIC tomorrow, Matty might easily be dirt-napping before the damn thing is done years from now. My guess is that he's banking that he can keep his evil self going, as he always has, through greed and the excitement of filing lawsuits and fighting for more power and money.

But why would anyone buy into this?

Why are some members of the state Senate acting as his lackeys and stoutly defending preserving his monopoly control? Largely because Manuel J. Moroun understands the fine art of throwing money around, sometimes as campaign contributions, sometimes, the whispers say, in subtler ways.

That's what people have to fight if we hope to see the DRIC bill pass the Senate. This will be an uphill climb. DRIC passed the House last week, but narrowly. Now for the much harder part. Republicans control the Michigan Senate, 22-16. Not a single House Republican backed the new bridge. Dismayingly, several Democrats voted against it.

Supporters of DRIC have to win over some Senate Republicans, if they are to have any chance. The odds are great — but not impossible, if we make it clear to our senators how vitally important this is. And everyone needs to remember this:

Matty Moroun is one of the worst corporate citizens, ever.

Want to see his symbol and monument? Cast your eyes on the great, rotting hulk of the Michigan Central Depot. Matty owns it. He refuses to fix it up or tear it down — though he and his soulmate, Kwame Kilpatrick, once tried to get the city of Detroit to buy it and convert it into a police headquarters.

And he owns hundreds of other slum properties here and in Canada. Some he plainly bought for his new bridge. Some he clearly bought to try to stop any other bridge. But he's done worse. His willingness to show contempt for the law is at least as great as that of the justly rejailed Kwamester. Joel Thurtell, perhaps the best reporter in the state, has for months documented (at joelontheroad.com) how Moroun illegally seized part of Riverside Park for his planned new bridge.

Moroun even seized part of a city street and built a gas station and a duty-free store without permission. When the courts ordered him to tear them down, he refused and appealed. Last Thursday, the Michigan Supreme Court denied his appeal and ordered him to tear it all down. What was truly amazing was his reaction — which got too little notice in the press. Through a spokesman, he said, "Today's decision of the Michigan Supreme Court is not a final determination, only an interim decision on this matter." Does he expect the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn these decisions? They tend to take cases only when lower courts disagree. They haven't disagreed here at all.

City and state officials should now bulldoze his illegal construction, force him to pay for it, and began reviewing and possibly suspending every one of his licenses and permits. For any single senator to vote for the interests of this man, especially against the good of our citizens, would be a betrayal beyond belief. But a majority of them may do exactly that.

Unless we move fast to force them not to.

In last week's column, "Betraying nature," I indicated that no Republican in the state Legislature voted in favor of the environment more than half the time. There were three very notable exceptions in the House: Rep. Larry DeShazor of Portage, who voted right 94 percent of the time, and Dick Ball (R-Laingsburg) and Gail Haines (R-Waterford), both of whom notched 89 percent on a range of issues selected by the League of Conservation Voters.

Those are much better scores than those of many Democrats, including Speaker of the House Andy Dillon. The error was mine, and caused by a careless misreading of the entire scorecard.

However, with those exceptions, virtually every other Republican had worse scores than any of the Democrats.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Contact him at [email protected]

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