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Commentary: Now just build the bridge

This has been a bad year for Matty Moroun, the billionaire owner of the Ambassador Bridge. In January, he was thrown in jail overnight, for failing to comply with court orders to live up to an agreement he’d signed to finish a road project near his bridge.

The court subsequently took control of what was called the Gateway Project away, had the state finish it, and made Moroun pay the costs of finishing it, which were a mere $16-million or so.  When you have Moroun’s kind of money, that may seem like pocket change. Or maybe not. Moroun, who is 85 years old, evidently doesn’t think a billion-dollar fortune is enough.

He spent the rest of this year fighting to prevent the governments of Michigan and Canada from building a second bridge across the Detroit River that would compete with the 83-year-old Ambassador, which he owns.

Governor Rick Snyder and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper say a new bridge is essential for both nation’s economies and for the security of both countries. If something were to happen to the Ambassador, it would be economically devastating to Michigan and Ontario. But a new bridge would likely cut into Matty Moroun’s huge profits. He may earn as much as $140-million a year from tolls, the sale of gasoline, and the duty-free shops he now operates.

So this year, he spent perhaps $40-million in an attempt to get the voters to pass a constitutional amendment that would essentially prevent anyone from building another bridge or tunnel, ever, without a statewide vote of the people.

Moroun, of course, figured his lobbyists and campaign contributions to legislators could easily prevent such a proposal for ever reaching the ballot. All fall, he flooded the airwaves with millions of dollars worth of blatantly false advertising to try to get people to vote for his amendment.

But the people didn’t buy it. They rejected his attempt to hijack the constitution by almost a million votes. So -- is this over?

Sadly, apparently not. Within hours after the votes were in, Mickey Blashfield, Moroun’s mouthpiece, charged that the New International Trade Crossing Bridge the governments are planning was actually on the site of “unstable salt mine foundations,” and hinted at further lawsuits.

The governor’s office said there is, of course, absolutely no truth to that. But Sandy Baruah, president of the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce, indicated he wouldn’t be surprised by any claims the Morouns might make. The chamber, like most Detroit-area businesses, has long supported a new bridge. Baruah told Crain’s Detroit Business that the Morouns “use the court system like I use the bathroom. I’m sure there will be another round of litigation.”

Even delaying a new bridge by a year means more huge profits for the Moroun family, he explained. But seriously, enough is enough.

This battle has dragged on for nearly a decade, and this is the most economically important border crossing in America. The people have spoken. The new bridge is legal. It will create jobs and not cost Michigan a cent. Elections mean something, and this one means both governments should begin building it as quickly as safety allows.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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