Moroun’s second bridge? Don’t hold your breath

Like pretty much everyone else, I was stunned, dismayed, and dejected when it was suddenly announced that the Canadian government had given Matty Moroun, 90-year-old slumlord billionaire, permission to build a second span right next to his old one.

What really looked bad was that the news was not first announced by Canada, but the Moroun family. "The Ambassador Bridge will now build North America's longest cable-stayed bridge next to the original span," Matthew Moroun, only spawn of Matty, crowed in a statement.

Only hours later did Canada confirm this in two apparently hastily released press releases. One was dated "Sept. xx;" the other, "August 2017," which made it look like some nefarious deal had been in the works for quite some time.

I turned to Gregg Ward, possibly the most decent man in Detroit. Ward, co-owner of the Detroit-Windsor Truck Ferry, has battled for years against Moroun's monopoly hold on transporting heavy freight across the Detroit River.

"Hard to say what this really means, and how it will all look at the end. More cards to be played. But from the cheap seats, though, it sure feels like the fix is in," he says.

My mind was reeling; did this mean the Gordie Howe International Bridge might not happen at all? For years, people who understood what was really going on have been fighting for a new bridge. The Detroit-Windsor connection is this nation's most economically important border crossing, period.

Something like $2 billion a week in manufacturing and other heavy automotive components move across Moroun's increasingly rickety Ambassador Bridge, which was built in 1929, and never meant to hold today's heavy loads.

Sometimes big pieces of concrete have fallen off it and into Windsor neighborhoods. If that bridge were to collapse, it would be economically devastating to both nations. There is no other easy way to get that stuff across the border. Waiting in long lines at either Port Huron or Buffalo won't work.

For years, Matty Moroun got away with insisting that a new bridge wasn't needed, before saying if one was, why, he should be the one to build it. He easily managed to buy off the Michigan legislature with thinly disguised "campaign contributions" that had the effect of bribes.

But Gov. Rick Snyder didn't need or want his money — and realized a new bridge was badly needed. To his everlasting credit, Snyder found a way to bypass the legislative trolls and make an agreement with Canada to build a new bridge.

This was only possible because the Canadians agreed to assume Michigan's share of the costs, about $550 million. Moroun screamed like the stuck pig he is, and launched lawsuit after lawsuit in state and federal court, all of which failed.

He spent millions to get a proposal on the 2012 statewide ballot that essentially would have said that he was the only one who could build a bridge across the river. That failed too.

Lost in all this was the sheer absurdity of allowing one man to entirely control commerce at an international border crossing. Ottawa and Washington should have moved to take Matty's bridge years ago, paid him something for it, and then sent him scuttling back to run his profitable trucking business.

But we have a government of billionaires, by billionaires, and for billionaires, and that was never seriously considered. What was clear, however, is that putting another bridge where the Ambassador is made no sense whatsoever.

On the Canadian side, the bridge ends in a series of residential neighborhoods. Traffic often backs up horribly; there are at least a dozen lights between the bridge and 401, Canada's main freeway. Additionally, those who live in the shadow of the Ambassador now complain about noise pollution and the fumes from the exhaust from idling trucks.

Why would Canada let him build another span?

In the next few days, I talked to those in the know in both countries, and found out what appears to be really going on:

Yes, Canada will let Matty build a second span — but if and only if he meets a long list of expensive and time-consuming conditions — including getting permits from both countries to tear the old bridge down.

Michigan is certain to have a whole series of other conditions. Snyder, who loathes Moroun, said that he wouldn't be able to put one shovel in the ground "unless and until further governmental approvals in the U.S. are obtained."

Don't look for the governor to do anything to expedite those appeals. Both nations made it clear on and off the record that their commitment to the Gordie Howe bridge stands.

"The one thing we are trying to convey is that nothing has changed about this project, from our point of view," says Andrew Doctoroff, an attorney who is Snyder's special assistant and point man on the bridge project.

Americans, some in high places, did say that they were appalled by Canada's uncharacteristically bumbling roll-out of the announcement; a PR fiasco apparently caused by two separate ministries not communicating adequately.

But Canadians insisted that nothing has changed. Canada, in fact, always has wanted two bridges; given the billions involved, that makes sense in case anything ever goes wrong.

They are very happy to let the Morouns tear down and replace the Ambassador — but only once the Gordie Howe, now scheduled to open about 2023, is well on the way to being built.

By the way, reporters who breathlessly indicated that Moroun's second bridge will soon be rising against the sky probably didn't read carefully the list of 28 "terms and conditions" Canada attached to the permission.

Besides getting demolition permits from both countries, Moroun will have to somehow — at his own expense — relocate a fire hall in the bridge's shadow.

He will have to buy a portion of Huron Church Road and pay to relocate it, plus fix up and improve a number of other roads and pay for utility relocations and easements.

Not to mention complying with Canada's more rigorous environmental rules. And, oh yes — the Morouns will have to "consult with" a Native American tribe in the vicinity, the Walpole Island First Nation, about any archaeological or other concerns they may have about this project.

There are other hoops to jump through, too.

But suffice it to say that while there may be twists and turns and nuisance lawsuits ahead, it's clear that Matty and his minions won't be building a new bridge overnight.

Luring Amazon to Detroit

Everyone is positively giddy about the prospect of persuading Amazon to build its second massive headquarters in Detroit, an event that the Detroit Free Press' Rochelle Riley said "could bring 50,000 jobs and a lot of hope to the Motor City."

Well, yes. But it almost certainly isn't happening, especially if the giant mail-order retailer wants a dedicated campus with a lot of space. The city has a lot of land, but mainly in small, abandoned-house sized parcels.

Nobody thought to zone for the future, back in the day. That's why new sprawling auto plants were built elsewhere after World War II, and why when we talk about bringing Amazon to the D, we are probably talking about Livonia.

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