Commentary: Unsung heroes and the bridge

Apr 15, 2013

Three years ago, it seemed possible we’d never see a new bridge over the Detroit River. True, most businesses and corporations felt that one would definitely be needed.

The existing Ambassador Bridge is more than 80 years old, but carries 25 percent of all the trade between the United States and Canada -- more than $3 billion a week.

There is no backup for it, and even a temporary shutdown would wreak havoc on the economies of Michigan and Ontario.

But thanks to lavish campaign contributions, Manuel J. “Matty Moroun” had been able to effectively buy off the Michigan legislature, to the point where they would not even allow a vote on the issue.

Once, when I asked U.S. Senator Carl Levin if anything surprised him about Detroit, his answer was “the incredible power of Moroun.” Yet last Friday, there stood a triumphant Governor Rick Snyder with an array of Canadian officials.

Secretary of State John Kerry had just issued a presidential permit allowing a New International Trade Crossing Bridge to be built.

Last year, the governor signed an agreement with Canada agreeing on a site and the terms. Now, all that is left is to acquire a few final properties through eminent domain, set up an authority, and begin letting bids, choosing architects, and planning construction.

That is, unless a series of last-ditch lawsuits filed by Matty Moroun slows the process. In a best-case scenario, the first vehicles won’t drive across it before 2019.

But it is going to happen. I couldn’t help think, however, that there were two unsung heroes who should have been on that platform with the governor. One is Gregg Ward, who with his father operates a small business called the Detroit-Windsor Truck Ferry.

The creaky old Ambassador Bridge is not certified for trucks carrying certain varieties of hazardous materials, and so the Wards haul perhaps fifty trucks a day across the water.

Ward started sounding the alarm about Moroun’s intimidating tactics and business practices as far back as the 1990s. But few listened.

One who did, however, was retired Detroit Free Press investigative reporter Joel Thurtell, who reported five years ago that Moroun had seized portions of a city park and posted phony Homeland Security signs. When he went there, he was driven off by a shotgun-toting goon. He wrote about this and posted pictures on his blog. Soon, others were looking into Moroun’s activities. Public opinion began slowly to shift.

There’s a special irony about Gregg Ward, the first to blow the whistle on the billionaire. The new bridge will likely be certified for hazmat, and this may put his truck ferry out of business.

That’s a scary prospect, given that Ward is a single father of two children, one of them severely autistic. But he says doing the right thing matters more. He told me yesterday that the new bridge is a sign of the revival of our region. There have always been those, he said, “who use their vast wealth to control and undermine our system."

But he added, “the success of democracy depends on an engaged public. It is time for us all to stand up and walk together across a new bridge.” Finally, it looks like that may be so.        

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.