Tuesday, Oct 17, 2017
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Jack Lessenberry

COMMENTARY

It’s time for Americans and Canadians to own the Ambassador Bridge

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Lessenberry

The Blade
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DETROIT — Think about this radical idea: The United States and Canada should invoke eminent domain and force Ambassador Bridge owner Manuel Moroun to sell the structure, which links Detroit with Windsor, Ont., to both governments.

That’s not a plea for Soviet-style socialism. Most capitalist nations around the world would think it was crazy ever to have allowed one man to own an international border crossing, let alone one he claims neither nation has a right to regulate or inspect.

The Ambassador Bridge is the most economically important trade crossing in North America, with more than $130 billion in freight, mainly heavy manufacturing components, moving across it each year. Were the Moroun family composed of good citizens, this bizarre arrangement might be overlooked.

But the family is anything but that. This month, Windsor officials had to close several streets because of huge concrete chunks falling from the 85-year-old bridge. Windsor Mayor Drew Dilkins held a press conference to say: “We believe there is a significant safety issue at this point … God forbid someone gets injured or killed.”

You might have expected the Ambassador Bridge Co. to issue horrified apologies, and promise to do whatever it could to make things right.

Instead, the Morouns responded with arrogant snarls. Matthew Moroun, the only son of the bridge’s principal owner, proclaimed the bridge was “not crumbling.”

He demanded that if Windsor thought that was the case, the city should prove it. That might seem hard, because the Morouns refused to allow their bridge to be freely inspected by the United States or Canadian governments.

Confronted with the concrete chunks and visual evidence of holes in the bridge, Matthew Moroun bizarrely blamed the government of Windsor. He claimed the Canadian city had prevented his company from making repairs on the bridge, which spans the Detroit River.

“They don’t want to see the Ambassador Bridge standing tall for the next 50 years,” he claimed. He said the city is preventing repairs because Canada opposes the Morouns’ desire to build a second bridge next to their aging one. Canadian officials said that was nonsense.

Days later, Canadian Broadcasting Corp. News reported that the Ambassador Bridge Co. had failed to make repairs to the bridge’s railings, curbs, and sidewalks that it was ordered to make last June by the government agency Transport Canada.

A spokesman for the bridge company said it is still looking for contractors to do the work. The Morouns may be especially eager to drag their feet on this repair job; it will require them to shut down the bridge for a while. That would mean losing money.

The Morouns have a long history of flouting authority and dragging their feet on obeying court orders. Nearly four years ago, a Michigan judge sent the elder Mr. Moroun and bridge company president Dan Stamper to jail for refusing to comply with a court order to finish connecting the bridge to nearby expressways, a deal the company had signed.

After one night behind bars, Mr. Moroun — now 88 and according to Forbes magazine worth $1.95 billion — relented. Mr. Moroun agreed to live up to the deal, and the men were released.

However, Mr. Moroun has continued to file lawsuit after lawsuit in both nations, mostly to attempt to stop the publicly owned Gordie Howe International Bridge from being built. U.S. and Canadian officials hope the new bridge will be open by 2020. Mr. Moroun’s efforts to block it have been unsuccessful so far.

Last week, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party won a landslide victory in Canada. The new Trudeau-led government promised that it, unlike the outgoing Conservative Party, would put the interests of Canadians first, and invest heavily in the country’s infrastructure.

One way to do that is to give both nations’ most important border crossing back to the people, and end their long vexation by a greedy, bloated nuisance.

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.

Contact him at: omblade@aol.com

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