Burning Bridges? U.S. Businessman in International Dispute Over Detroit Bridge

From trade to turmoil, plans for a new cross-border bridge are in dispute.

ByHuma Khan and Julie Percha
July 22, 2010, 12:06 PM

July 30, 2010 -- It's a tale of bridges that has caused an international dispute.

For 81 years, the privately-owned Ambassador Bridge that connects Detroit to Windsor, Ontario, has facilitated cross-border movement and trade. It is one of the top five cross-border passenger vehicle crossings and one the busiest international crossings in North America in terms of trade volume, comprising more than a quarter of all U.S.-Canada trade.

When it was built in 1929, the four-lane bridge topped the list as the longest suspension bridge in the world. The U.S. - Canadian trade that crosses the bridge equals all U.S. exports to Japan, according to the U.S. embassy in Ottowa.

But the famous four-lane crossing, which is in need of repair, is now at the center of a heated international disagreement over its future as the Michigan Senate prepares to vote on a new billion dollar project that could make the Ambassador Bridge a thing of the past.

The Ambassador Bridge's inspection report released last year showed that while its structure is sound, much work is needed to be done to fix the bridge's cracked concrete, rusted railings and corrosion.

Its owner, 83-year-old trucking tycoon Manuel "Matty" Moroun -- one of only a handful of individuals to privately own a United States border crossing -- has volunteered to invest between $400 and $500 million of his own money to build a new, six-lane bridge adjacent to the Ambassador. Moroun purchased the Ambassador Bridge in 1979.

But Michigan, Canadian and U.S. governments are pushing to instead build a new, public bridge two miles downstream from the Ambassador, called the Detroit River International Crossing (DRIC).

Canada has agreed to loan Michigan $550 million for the project, which enjoys the support of Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, Detroit Mayor Dave Bing and other local heavy hitters. But it has run into opposition from Moroun and his Detroit International Bridge Company (DIBC), who charge that the project will be a taxpayer burden and will hurt traffic on the Ambassador.

"[The DRIC Bridge] gives folks who had been in power ... an opportunity to talk smoke and mirrors about jobs and investment and a new bridge instead of the reality of where Michigan is today," DIBC President Dan Stamper told ABC News. "Better to talk about jobs and investment and pie-in-the-sky projects than to talk about the reality."

The Michigan House of Representatives has already approved the project, and Granholm has spoken widely in its support, but some state lawmakers are wary of the billion-dollar investment.

State Senate Majority Leader, Republican Mike Bishop, said at a conference last month that he was concerned about the issue of sovereignty, given Canada's hefty investment.

"My main concern is that it constrains the power of the Michigan Legislature and gives away our legislative power and oversight," Bishop said at the event, according to Crain's Detroit Business. "They say they're going to give us $550 million. I say, 'Show us the money' ... I don't have faith or confidence this plan is ready for prime time, but I'm willing to try to bring the parties together."

Supporters of the project fear Moroun's influence will deter state senators from voting for it. Moroun, ranked No. 701 in Forbes' 2009 billionaires list, holds considerable sway in Michigan's political circles.

U.S. Trucking Tycoon and Canada in Bridge Dispute

The proposed DRIC, a 1.8-mile, six-lane bridge, is expected to cost in the neighborhood of $2 billion. A study commissioned by the Michigan Department of Transportation and released in May estimated that the DRIC would generate revenues of close to $3 billion from passenger cars and $11 billion from commercial vehicle traffic over a 50-year period.

In April, Canada agreed to pitch in an additional $550 million for the project. The money would be re-paid in bridge tolls, according to Canadian officials.

"This project will create thousands of jobs in Southwestern Ontario and in Michigan," James Kusie, a spokesman for Canadian Transportation Minister John Baird, told ABC News in an e-mail. "That's why this Government is stepping up now to move this project forward."

Supporters of the DRIC project say those jobs will be welcome in Michigan, whose unemployment rate stood at 13.1 percent in June.

"This crossing has a significant impact on the entire region, both in Canada and the United States, which is why virtually every business that ships goods in Michigan has been asking for a new border crossing and additional capacity and more choices at the border," Bill Shreck, spokesman for the Michigan Department of Transportation, told ABC News.

But the Detroit International Bridge Company fiercely opposes the bill, saying it would unfairly compete with the Ambassador Bridge and become a liability to taxpayers.

"It's our asset. We have billions of dollars invested in it," Stamper said. "We feel obligated to it, and we have an obligation to make sure that it's safe, secure and efficient, and we've done that throughout our history."

Shreck said that while the state is not against the Ambassador Bridge span proposal, it won't solve the traffic problems on the border.

"Basically, they're trying to protect that income at the expense of the optimal operation of the border crossing," Shreck said, adding that if the DRIC plan is approved, it could complement the Ambassador Bridge and ease the traffic burden.

The existing crossing sees more than 8,000 trucks and 68,000 travelers daily and handles U.S.-Canada trade totaling $130 billion per year, according to officials.

Further complicating the issue is that, presently, the Detroit International Bridge Company does not have the required approvals begin building its proposed Ambassador twin span – an issue which Stamper dismissed as "red tape."

In March, the U.S. Coast Guard terminated the bridge application until the company could prove ownership of the span property, among other stipulations, and the project still requires a final environmental assessment from Canadian officials. The company is free to re-submit its Coast Guard application once it resolves the property issues.

"The DRIC project is the only proposal that has received environmental clearances in both Canada and the United States and has the support of the mayors, communities, private sector users and governments in both countries," Kusie said.

Not dissuaded, Stamper said the Detroit International Bridge Company plans to move ahead on its Ambassador twin span project, regardless of the DRIC vote in the Michigan Senate.

"We don't think we're doing anything that we don't already have a right to do and expect to do, and in fact, have an obligation to do," Stamper said. "Is it greed to invest our own money and hope for and take the risk in our own return? I don't think that's greed. I think that's the American way."

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