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Private Bridge on Canada Border a Security Concern

Container trucks park under the Ambassador Bridge. Critics say the location of the fueling station poses a security risk.
Pam Fessler, NPR
Container trucks park under the Ambassador Bridge. Critics say the location of the fueling station poses a security risk.
The Ambassador Bridge is the key trade link between the United States and Canada.  It is privately owned.
Pam Fessler, NPR /
The Ambassador Bridge is the key trade link between the United States and Canada. It is privately owned.

The busiest border crossing between the United States and Canada — the Ambassador Bridge in Detroit — is privately owned. It carries one-quarter of all trade between the two countries, worth about $100 billion a year. But government inspectors have limited access to the bridge, and it's not clear who is in charge of making sure it doesn't become a terrorist target.

The bridge is owned by Manuel "Matty" Moroun, a reclusive billionaire distrusted by many people on both sides of the border. Moroun is now in a fierce battle with a government-run group over who gets to build the next crossing.

One of the big issues is security. Gregg Ward, who runs a nearby ferry for trucks that carry hazardous materials, is disturbed that uninspected trucks are allowed to park underneath the base of the Ambassador. They park there while truckers shop at the bridge's duty-free store on the American side. Trucks and cars can also fill up their tanks with discounted fuel. Ward says fuel trucks park under the bridge when they're filling up the underground storage tanks.

Ward recalls a fuel truck accident earlier this year, which caused a major highway to collapse in California. He says an explosion underneath the Ambassador could be disastrous — shutting down one of the most important trade arteries in the nation.

The Detroit International Bridge Company, which operates the Ambassador, denies there's a security risk and says it keeps the area patrolled. But no government agency appears to be responsible for making sure the area is safe.

Jurisdiction Unclear

Shown a picture of the parked trucks, Jay Ahern, assistant commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, says it's not his agency's responsibility. His officers are on top of the bridge trying to make sure nothing dangerous enters the U.S.

"That would be more of a transportation responsibility — either at the state or the federal level for those agencies — but that would not be a Customs and Border Protection responsibility," Ahern says.

But transportation officials say it's not their job, either. A spokesman for the Federal Highway Administration says his agency has raised concerns about the trucks with Moroun, but it doesn't have jurisdiction. Neither does the federal agency that oversees the transportation of hazardous materials. Nor does the Coast Guard. Nor does the Michigan State Police.

Ahern says many different groups have responsibility for bridge security.

"Certainly, you have state entities that are responsible for it. You have some federal responsibilities as well. You have Canadian authorities on their side of the bridge. And certainly, the bridge owner has some responsibility to a degree as well," Ahern says.

Critics say that's the problem with having such an important border crossing in private hands. Government officials can't go on the bridge to inspect it themselves, and have only recently gained access to the bridge company's inspection reports. The bridge also allows some trucks carrying restricted hazardous materials to cross. Federal officials tell NPR there is little they can do other than to go after the trucking companies.

"It's called 'critical infrastructure' because it's critical, and this is the crossing for billions of dollars of U.S. trade, and it's controlled by somebody who isn't controlled by the government," ferry operator Ward complains.

Security Concerns a Red Herring?

Dan Stamper, president of the Detroit International Bridge Company, says his firm doesn't control the border.

"U.S. federal agents control the border," Stamper says. "They decide who comes, who goes. All I do is build a piece of roadway, manage it, protect the roadway and help with traffic directing and traffic control. That's what I do, and I do it very well."

Stamper says the security issue is a red herring put forth by those who want a new, government-run bridge to be built downstream. He doesn't think that makes sense just because a terrorist might try to attack his facility.

"We didn't build a new Capitol in Washington a mile west of our current Capitol. We didn't build a White House a mile west. What we did was protected them," he says. "I'm the only bridge, the only piece of infrastructure that, at its own cost, has armed security protecting the bridge. That's what we need to do. That's what we're doing."

Federal officials say they do think the Ambassador Bridge is generally well-run and safe. But many people in the region want another crossing, just in case — not only as backup for the 78-year-old Ambassador, but to handle future growth in trade. A bi-national group, representing the Canadian and U.S. governments, is studying the options.

But at the same time, the Detroit International Bridge Company has its own plans. It wants to build a new six-lane span right next to the existing bridge. Stamper says the company has already spent more than $400 million on the project.

"Some people believe only government can do these things," he says, "and that's the real issue at hand — should government build this next bridge, or should private industry build it?"

A Question of Clout

The bridge company has some key support: Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick has called the government-backed effort "an unnecessary project to remedy a non-existent problem." Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm has said a new Ambassador span would be cheaper for taxpayers, but she thinks the bi-national study should also proceed.

Critics attribute some of this support to Moroun's influence. The 79-year-old businessman has built a powerful business empire in the region. He also owns trucking companies that serve the auto industry and is a big campaign contributor.

Michigan state Rep. Steve Tobocman, who represents communities near the base of the Ambassador, says that's all the more reason to keep Moroun from controlling the next crossing.

"That's one of the benefits of having a publicly owned crossing, and of having units of government who have much broader public-policy concerns than a private company look at the border situation and determine the best crossing," Tobocman says. "The public has worked very hard with the local community to minimize the impacts."

But ferry owner Ward isn't optimistic that the government will win the battle. As trucks board his small ferry for the trip to Canada, he points to huge plots of land along the river owned by Moroun. Ward thinks some of them could be used to block another bridge.

"I think he's going to have the government in checkmate pretty soon," Ward says. " They're going to fall asleep at the wheel. You know, you always hope the public process works, but it's a very slow public process."

In fact, the bi-national group envisions a new bridge by 2013. Stamper says the new Ambassador span could be ready by 2010 — if the company gets the permits it needs. Some people here think that won't happen, in part because opposition on the Canadian side of the bridge is especially strong.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Pam Fessler
Pam Fessler is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where she covers poverty, philanthropy, and voting issues.