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Politics & Prejudices: Why aren’t they building the new bridge?

By August 17, 2016No Comments

Jack Lessenberry/Detroit Metro Times – By this time, earth-moving equipment should be crawling over all the approaches leading to where the new Gordie Howe International Bridge is to rise.

Crews should be working to relocate utility lines as needed. Workers should be signing up for jobs — thousands of good-paying, construction jobs that will last for years.

More than four years ago, in what likely is the best thing he ever will have done as governor, Rick Snyder figured out a way to get around a legislature owned by Matty Moroun, the billionaire who owns the rickety Ambassador Bridge.

Every business interest in both Michigan and Ontario has known for years that a new bridge is essential. This is the two nations’ economically most important border crossing.

Billions in trade, mainly heavy manufacturing components, moves across the old bridge every week. This is stuff that can’t go through the tunnel. There is no backup system; if this bridge fails, it would be devastating to our economy. The structure may indeed be literally falling apart; it sent a shower of concrete into Windsor streets last fall.

On top of that, the Ambassador Bridge is in a lousy place for a major economic trade route. There are more than a dozen traffic lights between the end of the bridge and Highway 401, Canada’s most important freeway. Moroun’s contention that he should be allowed to build a second bridge next to his old one makes no sense logistically or environmentally.

The last thing the people who live in the wretched neighborhoods near the Ambassador need is to breathe more diesel exhaust and suffer through more noise pollution.

The new bridge has now won every approval necessary — presidential, parliamentary, environmental.

Enraged at first that someone was actually trying to make him play fair, Matty Moroun filed federal lawsuit after federal lawsuit attempting to block the new bridge from being built.

The only winners were the lawyers who billed him by the hour. He lost every count on every case. Meanwhile, the Canadians have built a system of beautiful access roads that will swiftly convey traffic from the Gordie Howe directly to 401.

The area is artfully landscaped, and partly concealed barriers are in place to shield residents from noise pollution.

But on this side of the border, nothing — except a little preliminary work at the site of what is to be the future U.S. customs plaza. Two weeks ago, Gregg Ward, the co-owner of the Detroit-Windsor Truck Ferry, took me on a tour of the entire bridge area on both sides of the border. The contrast was huge.

Afterward, over lunch, he sighed. “I’m worried that it is being deliberately stalled,” he said of the bridge.

He’s not alone. Brian Masse, the member of Canada’s parliament who represents Windsor, is suspicious as to whether the new Liberal government led by Justin Trudeau is as committed to the bridge as the Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper was before he was defeated last fall.

Masse, who as a New Democrat is a member of neither party, has accused the Windsor-Detroit Bridge Authority of “losing focus,” and was alarmed that Dwight Duncan, the interim head of the authority, has expressed interest in perhaps trying to buy the Ambassador Bridge, which he accurately described as an “aging, crumbling piece of infrastructure.”

(Earlier discussions about buying the bridge collapsed when Moroun insisted on an unreasonable price. Apparently, Canada would buy it not to avoid building a new bridge, but to put an end to Moroun’s interference.)

Ward’s suspicions as to why things are stalled center around Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, who has been playing footsie for many months with Matty Moroun, who the mayor has made a controversial deal with over Riverside Park.

“Every year this project is delayed means more millions for Moroun,” said Ward. He wonders why the mayor hasn’t signed off to transfer jurisdiction over roads and easements in the area to the bridge authority, so they could begin requiring utilities to relocate lines, etc. as needed for the bridge.

When asked about all this, the Duggan administration’s response was less than reassuring. After two days, I received a response from Jed Howbert, the executive director of the Jobs & Economic Team. “We continue to support the Gordie Howe bridge, and are committed to ensuring the needs of those who live in the community are addressed.”

That raises the question of community benefits, often a sore point when it comes to development in the city.

There’s little question that those who live near developments in Detroit have often been given short shrift when it came to how they were treated. Two different community benefits ordinances will be on the Detroit ballot this year.

Indeed, Ward told me, MDOT, the Michigan Department of Transportation, seems to have no intention of erecting the sort of noise barriers Canada has to shield the mostly poor people on the U.S. side who will be living within the shadow and the “noise footprint” of the Gordie Howe bridge.

Alan Ackerman is an attorney who represents most of the business owners in the bridge area. He is sympathetic to community benefits — but says “Duggan came a little late to the party, after Coleman Young and Kwame gave so much away.”

His clients, most of whom were struggling to begin with, are not benefiting from the delay. “I’ve never seen anything like the power of Matty Moroun. He gets anything he wants,” said Ackerman, who has been practicing law in the city for 44 years.

Canada recently began to back away from the previous insistence that the bridge would be finished and open by 2020.

Ackerman’s guess is that it will be 2023 — and that it won’t happen until all parties conclude an agreement with Moroun.

The biggest reason for the delay is that the Detroit-Windsor Bridge Authority still has to acquire many parcels of land, 30 or so of which are owned by — yep — Matty Moroun.

Ackerman is perhaps the area’s foremost expert on eminent domain; he won the Michigan Supreme Court’s historic “Poletown” ruling in 2004 that made it harder for economic development organizations to take homeowners’ land.

Here, he thinks eminent domain could be used if needed in the case of the Moroun properties, but that things could be dragged out indefinitely unless a deal is reached with the state’s greediest and most obnoxious billionaire.

Driving through New Jersey, he told me “You’ll know it will happen when one day you hear that they’ve made a deal with Moroun.” Hundreds of miles away, sitting at Johnny Noodle King, a short drive from his docks, Ward also agrees.

The new bridge will happen; it’s too economically important to the region. As a human being, Ward is sort of the anti-Moroun. Looked at one way, he should be against any new bridge. His truck ferry exists because the rickety Ambassador isn’t safe for trucks carrying hazardous materials.

The new bridge will be, and will put Ward, the 56-year-old single father of an autistic son, out of business.

Yet a new bridge is essential if we are to have a future. One thing working in its favor is biology.

Ward doesn’t say so, but he knows in a few years, the 89-year-old Moroun will be dead.

Yet he also can look back at years of failed and thwarted attempts and delays, and a region sold out time and again.

“I worry,” Ward said.

We all should.