Michigan politics is rarely subtle. But the current dustup over a proposed new bridge to Canada has been particularly nasty. Billionaire trucking company owner Manuel “Matty” Moroun, who beat out Warren Buffett in bidding for the 81-year-old Ambassador Bridge more than three decades ago, is now doing his best to undercut Republican Michigan Governor Rick Snyder’s efforts to build a publicly owned competitor to what is the busiest U.S.-Canada border crossing.
Back in 1979, Moroun paid around $30 million for a controlling stake in the 7,490-foot span connecting Detroit to Windsor, Ont.—once the world’s longest suspension bridge. With that investment under threat, the 84-year-old Moroun and his son, Matthew, are trying to persuade state lawmakers to oppose the proposed New International Trade Crossing, as it’s known. Moroun has spent more than $1 million on television ads calling the ITC a boondoggle, saying taxpayers would end up footing part of the bill. To ease congestion on the Ambassador, Moroun is proposing building an adjoining six-lane span, at his own expense.
Few would deny the traffic jams on the Ambassador are anything other than epic. One-quarter of the truck freight between the U.S. and Canada and more than 7 million vehicles a year traverse the bridge, according to the Public Border Operators Assn. Delays at the crossing cost Ford alone $13.7 million in lost productivity in 2010, concludes a forthcoming report by the Center for Automotive Research.
Snyder wants Michigan and Canada to hire a contractor to build and run another Detroit River bridge just two miles south. The project would generate 10,000 construction jobs, the Michigan Transportation Dept. forecasts. While the contractor would be responsible for cobbling together the $950 million in financing for the bridge, Canada has offered to lend Michigan up to $550 million to build connecting roads. “This is Canada’s No. 1 national infrastructure priority,” says Roy Norton, the nation’s consul general in Detroit.
Matthew Moroun, vice-chairman of Detroit International Bridge, which operates the Ambassador, says a public project would likely put it out of business. An analysis by Michigan’s Transportation Dept. forecasts the Ambassador would lose nearly half its commercial traffic. “We would have a hard time, if not an impossible time, paying our bills,” says the younger Moroun, 38. The Ambassador Bridge took in revenues of $81 million in 2004, according to state estimates. Matthew Moroun would not disclose figures.
The Morouns’ efforts to frame their dispute as a contest between a family business and an overreaching state government have resonated beyond Michigan. Americans for Prosperity, an advocacy group founded by the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch that has embraced some Tea Party causes, bankrolled a public-relations campaign against the proposed public bridge, including mass mailings to state voters. Matty Moroun, who has a personal net worth of $1.7 billion, according to Forbes, also hired Dick Morris, the onetime campaign strategist turned Fox News Network pundit, as an adviser. Moroun “has co-opted some of the Tea Party movement, which sends shivers up Republicans’ backbones,” says Tom Shields, spokesman for a coalition of business, labor, and political leaders that supports Snyder’s plan.
“Everyone wants a private bridge,” says Michigan Lieutenant Governor Brian Calley, who drafted the legislation. “The question is, do they want a private bridge for one politically active family with exclusive access to a monopoly?”
Snyder is pressing state lawmakers to vote on the legislation before the end of the year. Republican State Senator Mike Kowall, who chairs the Economic Development Committee, says “as of now, the votes are not there.” The Moroun family certainly has an influential voice, given that it contributed $565,000 to state candidates for the 2010 election, according to campaign finance records. “Those people respond to money,” says Rich Robinson, director of Michigan Campaign Finance Network, a private group that tracks donations. “It’s got to be the money-in-politics issue in Michigan this year.”