When Matty wins, we all lose.
How political clout beat the public interest
Published: December 15, 2010
When supporters of the proposed Detroit River International Crossing gathered for a press conference in downtown Detroit this past April, a startling array of often discordant voices were singing in sweet-sounding harmony.
There were Democrats and Republicans. There were a number of trade unionists as well as business interests ranging from the local Chamber of Commerce to Ford Motor Co. There was the African-American mayor of Detroit and white political power brokers from the other side of the Eight Mile divide. There were Canadians and Americans. All standing shoulder to shoulder as they joined in unison to praise the proposed bridge they said needs to be built between the Motor City and Windsor.
The current governor, Democrat Jennifer Granholm, and a few conservative members of the Legislature were there. Jim Doer, the Canadian Ambassador to the United States, was there as part as a far-ranging coalition that also includes the Michigan Association of Counties, the Canadian Auto Workers and the Ohio Senate. It was indeed, as one business publication covering the event reported, an "all-star lineup."
But the fact that they had come together spoke volumes, not just about the importance of the issue but also about the power and influence emanating from one octogenarian billionaire — Manuel "Matty" Moroun, whose privately controlled Detroit International Bridge Company owns the Ambassador Bridge.
That bridge provides a crucial link in the chain of international commerce, a key point in the corridor that accounts for 25 percent of all the trade that flows between Canada and the United States. As a conduit for semis carrying freight, it is a near-monopoly that, according to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, generates $60 million a year in toll revenue.
The bridge, however, is only one piece of Moroun's empire, which includes trucking and insurance businesses, as well as real estate and duty-free shops. So, even without the Ambassador, the Moroun clan wouldn't be reduced to collecting aluminum cans in order to make ends meet.
But it is the bridge that he is most associated with, and competition from the DRIC — which would be publicly owned and privately operated — is portrayed as a cataclysmic threat to all things Moroun. The scope of DRIC's perceived menace to Moroun and his family was made clear at the April press conference when Matty's wife Nora made what the trade publication Toll Roads News described as a surprise appearance at the event.
"You have somebody who operates a crossing that has retained a No. 1 ranking since we owned and operated it. Now the state of Michigan and Canada want to take 70 percent of our business," Nora Moroun is reported to have said. Making the most important border crossing in North America sound like a vulnerable mom-and-pop grocery, she added, "They want to destroy our family business."
Given that perspective — even if exaggerated — it's not surprising that Moroun and his minions would pull out all the stops in an attempt to keep the DRIC project from moving forward.
Those efforts culminated earlier this month, when legislation needed to take the next step in making the DRIC a reality failed to make it out of committee after Republican leadership reneged on a promise to allow an up-or-down vote on the Senate floor.
Which means that Matty Moroun wins. At least temporarily.
He wins because it puts him in a position to convince a new group of legislators and an equally new governor that the DRIC is dead and that, if they want to fend off competition from border crossings located elsewhere, then his new bridge is the only game in down.
And though he is locked in what has been a lengthy battle to build a second bridge, facing significant opposition on the Canadian side and permitting problems on the American side, he still wins, even if that second bridge of his never gets built. Because every day he delays progress on the DRIC, he profits. The longer the hoped-for bridge remains just a hope, the more millions he continues to rake in by maintaining his grip on cross-border traffic and the tolls it generates.
"Delay works in the bridge company's favor," says Sarah Hubbard, senior vice president of government relations at the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce. "Delay does not work in the region's favor. Or the state's favor."
The view is much the same from the other side of the river. As Brian Masse, a member of the Canadian Parliament from Windsor and a vocal DRIC supporter, points out: "He wins, and everyone else loses."
But his victory in the long run, no matter how much he wants to convince people otherwise, is anything but inevitable. His camp may claim that the DRIC is dead, but it is not. And its importance — to the city of Detroit, the entire region, and the nation as a whole — is an issue that is far too important to allow him to hold sway and dictate the terms of the debate.
River of trade
There is one thing everyone agrees on: Any sustained disruption to the flow of goods across the Detroit River would be an economic catastrophe. Automobile manufacturing — which relies on just-in-time deliveries to keep assembly lines moving smoothly — would screech to a halt. As the Build DRIC Now Coalition points out, with $43.8 billion in trade moving through the Detroit-Windsor corridor annually, more than "450 major Michigan businesses from Holland to Hazel Park" count "on the free flow of trade with Canada to keep their businesses competitive."
Which is a main reason why, after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, a bi-national effort to create "redundancy" in the corridor began.
This history was outlined in a November letter Canadian MP Masse sent to the Republican leader of Michigan's Senate, Mike Bishop.
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