Commentary
1:08 pm
Thu June 16, 2011

A Bridge Too Far

Once upon a time, two businessmen wanted to build a bridge across the Detroit River, using their own money to do it. 

The politicians were skeptical. It won’t make money, some said. They’ll sell bonds to finance construction, and people will lose their shirts. Detroit’s mayor had a different objection. He said that if the bridge was successful, the owners would get rich off the public. Funny, but I thought that’s how private enterprise was supposed to work. Eventually, a city-wide referendum was held, and people overwhelmingly voted for the bridge.

Detroit was booming and the people had faith in their future.
And by the way, they tossed their nay-saying mayor out of office. That’s how the Ambassador Bridge got built, more than eighty years ago. It turned out to be a huge economic engine for this region.

But now it is wearing out. Our economy could not function without at least one major bridge across the river. The state senate is now holding hearings on whether to give a second bridge the go-ahead, and everyone in the state should pay attention.

I’ve been studying this issue for a long time, and on the merits of the case, these hearings should have lasted five minutes. I cannot recall a single issue that was as much of a no-brainer.

Here’s the deal: Canada has offered to cover every dime of Michigan’s expected expenses for the new bridge, an estimated five hundred million or so. Not only that, but Washington will allow us to use the free Canadian money to get four times as much in federal highway funds -- something like two billion badly needed dollars.

What’s more, the bridge will create at least ten thousand well-paying jobs in Michigan for a number of years, some of them permanently. Private investors will build the bridge, which will then be jointly operated by both nations. There is no downside.

Except, that is, for one family. Matty Moroun, his wife Nora and sone Matthew are billionaires who own the Ambassador Bridge.

They have a monopoly and don’t want to lose it, and have donated vast sums to Michigan politicians in an effort to keep it.

They have been engaged in a full-press advertising campaign which the Center of Michigan has said is riddled with falsehoods. They have defied court orders, and the president of the company is facing contempt charges.

And yet they still may succeed in their efforts to stop a project supported by every major business interest in this state.

Part of this is the media’s fault. We’ve been failing to report adequately that many of the legislators opposing a new bridge have clear conflicts of interest in that they have taken large campaign donations from the Morouns.  No story quoting State Senator John Pappageorge on this issue, for example, should fail to note that he got four thousand dollars last year from the Moroun family.

And there are many more. State Senator Mike Nofs of Battle Creek said something sensible yesterday. He said it was time for “both sides to put aside the rhetoric, and instead give us the facts.” He’s right about that. But on this, as on every issue, who is financially beholden to whom are facts that also need to be known.