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When is work going to start on that new Detroit to Canada bridge?

Aug 5, 2016

For years, those who know how badly our economy needs a new bridge over the Detroit River have waged an epic battle with Matty Moroun, owner of the aging Ambassador Bridge.

For a long time, Moroun, the 89-year-old-billionaire holder of the 87-year old bridge managed to thwart any attempt to build a new bridge at what is America and Canada’s most economically important border crossing. Billions of dollars in trade cross over it every week.

Were that bridge to collapse, it would be an economic nightmare for both countries, but especially Michigan and Ontario. Every major business knows a new one is needed.

But Moroun long prevented one, largely by buying off members of the legislature through so-called campaign contributions, and sometimes offering them jobs.

Finally, however, he met his match in Governor Rick Snyder, who didn’t need his money. Five years ago, Snyder figured out a way to get around the legislature and sign an agreement with Canada. This only worked because Canada, which needs the bridge even more than we do, was willing to pay Michigan’s entire share of the costs, more than half a billion dollars.

Supposedly, they will be reimbursed someday out of our share of the tolls. Moroun, whose idea of a day at the beach is to file another lawsuit, waged battle after battle in the federal courts, but has been defeated every time. By now, there should have been shovels in the ground and thousands of workmen on the job.

But very little is happening.

The new Gordie Howe Bridge was supposed to open to traffic by 2020, but everyone now knows this is a myth. There’s still something like thirty parcels of land on the U.S. side that need to be acquired.

Yesterday, Gregg Ward, the co-owner of the Detroit-Windsor Truck Ferry, took me on a tour of the entire area on both sides of the border. Canada has already built beautiful, well-landscaped access roads that will convey truck traffic smoothly from the bridge to Highway 401, Canada’s major freeway. Noise barriers are in place to shield nearby residents from the thousands of trucks that will pass every day.

But on the U.S. side, nothing was going on, except for some preliminary work at the future customs plaza. You might think Ward, who started the truck ferry with his father in 1990, would oppose the new bridge, which will likely put him out of business.

That, however, isn’t the case. He is a civic-minded guy who knows how badly the bridge is needed. But he thinks Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan is deliberately slowing things, possibly to help Matty Moroun keep his monopoly as long as possible.

“He could be transferring utility access rights to the bridge authority so they could start doing the preliminary work, but that hasn’t happened,” he told me. A spokesman for the mayor said he would investigate and get back to me, but he hasn’t yet.

Gregg Ward is frankly baffled by the foot-dragging on the part of both city and state authorities. Once construction starts, it will mean the creation of thousands of high-paying jobs that will last for years. “What does Detroit need more than that?” he asked me. Nothing, of course.

But in politics, common sense isn’t a very common thing.

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