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Battle Involving New Mich. Bridge May Not Be Over

Tue November 27, 2012 - Midwest Edition

DETROIT (AP) Ambassador Bridge owner Manuel “Matty” Moroun has been jailed, paid thousands of dollars in court fines related to a Detroit freeway project and spent millions more to push a public referendum aimed at stopping a competing bridge.

Moroun failed to sway enough voters to back a ballot proposal that would have given Michigan residents say-so on whether state funds can be used to build new international border crossings.

But history has shown the oft-reclusive billionaire rarely backs down — even if the opponents are Michigan’s top-elected official and the Canadian government.

“I think he’s going to keep trying to fight,” said Colby Spencer, a senior analyst with the East Lansing-based Anderson Economic Group.

Moroun is opposed to a government-planned bridge linking southwest Detroit to Windsor, Ontario. The new bridge would pose the stiffest competition to his Ambassador Bridge and potentially cost his empire billions of dollars in toll revenue.

Following the Nov. 6 defeat of Proposal 6, Gov. Rick Snyder and various Canadian elected leaders said they will move forward with construction of the $3.5 billion New International Trade Crossing bridge.

“For that family business, they don’t want competition from any entity,” said Spencer, part of an independent 2011 study looking at the construction of a new commuter bridge between Detroit and Canada. “They have invested a lot of money in it. Clearly they care about it and it’s a major issue for them. I don’t foresee they are going to stop.”

The Ambassador Bridge’s annual gross revenue is about $60 million, said Mickey Blashfield, Moroun’s spokesman.

A competing bridge certainly would cut into toll profits enjoyed solely by Moroun for years.

“It’s money that’s going to drive their business decisions and why they have invested so much over the past year,” Spencer said of Moroun’s tenacity.

The bridge battle is an extension of Moroun’s recent court tussles with Michigan’s Department of Transportation that saw him jailed for two days earlier this year for violating a judge’s order to complete work on a $230 million freeway to bridge project.

Despite his wealth, Moroun also has resisted calls to demolish the Michigan Central Depot, a 17-story defunct train station seen by many as an example of the economic and civic failures of a blighted Detroit.

Blashfield said about $33 million was spent on advertising, court challenges and other efforts behind Proposal 6. But after it failed with voters, all eyes will be focused on the planned government bridge.

An interlocal deal on the government bridge was reached this year between Snyder and Canada. The agreement didn’t require approval from Michigan lawmakers who balked at backing the bridge plan.

“The Ambassador Bridge is the least of NITC proponents’ worries,” Blashfield told The Associated Press. “The governor has to show how he unilaterally has any authority under the Michigan constitution to strike an interlocal agreement, and how the Michigan Department of Transportation and Michigan Strategic Fund have the ability to sign an international agreement when the legislature prohibited such action. Those are not contingent on [the Detroit International Bridge Co.] but rather on the credibility of the representations made.”

The new span is expected to relieve congestion at the Ambassador Bridge and divert heavy truck traffic from Windsor neighborhoods.

The cost of building the bridge alone is estimated at about $950 million, according to the New International Trade Crossing Web site.

Canada has promised to take on Michigan’s $550 million portion with revenue from future tolls paying off the debt.

Other costs include work on freeway interchanges, customs plazas in both countries and infrastructure work.

Moroun’s camp has said his plan to twin the more than 80-year-old Ambassador Bridge would cost less to build and will be financed with private dollars. His Detroit International Bridge Co. still is waiting on permits from the U.S. Coast Guard and Canadian agencies to move forward with the project.

“If our trade with Canada is expected to grow, the traffic is going to increase. It would be nice to have two bridges,” Spencer said. “It shouldn’t be a competition.”

But Blashfield said forecasts don’t show traffic levels increasing to the point where two bridges will be needed.

Ambassador Bridge traffic peaked in 1998 at almost 13 million vehicles. About 4.5 million cars and 2.6 million trucks crossed in 2010.

“No investment-grade study has ever shown traffic levels will generate enough toll revenue to pay for the bridge, let alone to repay Michigan’s $550 million loan from Canada,” Blashfield said.

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