Thursday, May 24, 2018
One of America's Great Newspapers ~ Toledo, Ohio

Jack Lessenberry

The ferry master, the billionaire, and the power of democracy

DETROIT — Three years ago, I asked U.S. Sen. Carl Levin whether anything about Detroit, the city where he was born, surprised him anymore. Yes, he told me, “the power of Matty Moroun.“

That was back when it seemed there was little chance a new bridge between Detroit and Canada ever would be built, despite clear indications that Mr. Moroun’s aged Ambassador Bridge to Windsor, Ont., was wearing out.

The Moroun family bought the bridge in 1979, and years later, effectively bought the Michigan Legislature with campaign donations and other contributions. Bills to approve a new bridge never got out of committee, even after it was clear Canada would pick up all of Michigan’s construction costs, and Washington would let Lansing use Ottawa’s money to qualify for $2.2 billion in federal highway matching funds.

But last week, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder stood triumphantly with top Canadian officials. Secretary of State John Kerry had just announced that a presidential permit had been issued for the construction of a bridge.

Last year, the governor bypassed the Legislature and concluded an “interlocal” agreement with Canada to build a span about two miles south of the Ambassador Bridge.

Mr. Moroun was furious. The 85-year-old billionaire spent $40 million to put a state constitutional amendment on last November’s ballot that would have prevented any new bridge from getting built. But voters overwhelmingly turned it down.

“I’m absolutely delighted,” Roy Norton, the Canadian consul general in Detroit, told me after the announcement. “This is a great thing for both our nations.” Soon afterward, Mr. Snyder told reporters that the new bridge was “a project where everyone will win.”

“This is more than a bridge to me,” he added. “It’s about jobs and the future of our state.”

Five years ago, this would have seemed impossible. But while Governor Snyder did, indeed, do a great deal to make it happen, there might never have been a new bridge if it hadn’t been for two men who weren’t part of the celebration — but should have been.

Gregg Ward was the first critic to call attention to the abuses practiced by the Ambassador Bridge company, starting in the 1990s. He and his father operate a small business called the Detroit-Windsor Truck Ferry. Built in 1929, the Ambassador Bridge isn’t certified as safe for trucks that haul hazardous materials.

Mr. Ward and his father haul, on average, a few dozen vehicles a day. The Wards say they faced intimidation from the Morouns, who tried to buy them out. They began to worry that the bridge wasn’t safe, especially because neither the United States nor the Canadian government was allowed to inspect it.

Mr.Ward worried what might happen if terrorists blew up the bridge, which hauls half a billion dollars’ worth of heavy automotive and other manufacturing components across the border every day.

That amounts to a quarter of the value of all U.S.-Canada trade. There is no backup within many miles. That made no sense to the Wards, so Gregg Ward began a long and lonely struggle to inform people that a new bridge was needed.

For a long time, the media paid little attention, even though there was an ironic twist: Any new bridge would more than likely be certified to carry hazardous materials. “If the government does the right thing, it may well put us out of business,” Mr. Ward said.

That might be hard, because he is the single parent of two children and the main caregiver for an autistic son. Still, he thinks a new bridge is the right thing to do for “the revival for our region.”

Five years ago, a retired investigative reporter and blogger named Joel Thurtell started writing about the bridge. He found that the Morouns had illegally seized part of a Detroit park. Mr. Thurtell posted stories and pictures on his blog. People — including the mainstream media — gradually began paying attention.

What happens next in the bridge saga is less clear. The Morouns have filed two last-ditch lawsuits in state and federal courts.

There are still properties left to be acquired, some of them owned by Mr. Moroun. In a best-case scenario, a new bridge wouldn’t open to the public before 2019. But that it will eventually happen seems certain. That has restored Mr.Ward’s faith in the system.

“There have always been self-serving obstructionists who use their vast wealth to corrupt and undermine our political and justice system,” he told me. But he added that democracies’ “ever-redeeming brilliance is their ability to self-correct.”

“The success of democracy relies on an engaged public,” he said. “It is time for us all to walk together across a new bridge.”

Increasingly, it looks as if that day is coming.

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade’s ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.

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