The Detroit Bridge Controversy: an American Political Showdown
The Challenge to Bridge a River
There is a major political struggle going on in Michigan today. It pertains to the clash of wills between the current governor of the state, Rick Snyder, and the owners of the only existing overwater crossing in the Detroit area, the Ambassador Bridge. Usually, this author confines himself to the mid-Michigan scene, but Lansing is the state capital, and decisions reached here have a way of resonating to the borders of the state--and sometimes beyond. Therefore, an analysis of this intriguing political contest is called for and justified. The ramifications of this decision will spill over into Canada and will influence bilateral relations for years to come.
Background of the Controversy
The Detroit River forms a natural boundary between the United States and Canada. It is one of only two places in the lower forty-eight --the other being Maine--where one can enter Canada going due east or even southeast. The wedge of land sticking down into the Great Lakes accounts for this geographic fluke. As such, it has a significance perhaps out of proportion to its modest length. The need to bridge it arose earlier in the 1900's, and the Ambassador International Bridge was the result. A toll tunnel opened shortly after, but it is not part of the present controversy. The Ambassador Bridge carries an impressive estimated 16 to 25 plus percent of the overwater traffic of cars, trucks and merchandise flowing to and from Canada in any given year. Clearly, this is a strategic international waterway and choke point for trade with our nearest and most reliable partner.
The two vivid personalities involved in this heated debate are both American success stories. Manuel ("Matty") Moroun is an American original by almost any standards. He seems to personify the original self-made man. Starting out poor, he acquired a vast fortune in railroads, insurance and real estate, among other interests. He is head of CenTra, Inc. which controls the Ambassador Bridge, bought in 1978-79. His estimated net worth is well over a billion dollars, and he is obviously a major player in this contest. His rival, Rick Snyder, is no lightweight either. He headed Gateway Computer in Ann Arbor, increasingly the high technology center of the state. First elected governor of Michigan in 2010, he ran as "one tough nerd" and was triumphant in that year, as well as gaining reelection in 2014. Although somewhat tainted by the infamous Flint water scandal, he has continued as a strong leader of the state, and wants an alternative to Moroun's aging bridge on the Detroit River. Moroun naturally opposes this new project as a competitor to his highly profitable stream of revenue.
A Tale of Two Bridges
Almost everyone agrees that there is a crisis in the Detroit area regarding the Ambassador Bridge. From decaying infrastructure on the bridge itself to annoying traffic delays especially at the Windsor end, the need for some kind of new crossing is paramount. There is, of course, the alternative toll tunnel under the river, but the entities that own it do not permit truck traffic. So it seems inevitable that a new bridge will be constructed. Snyder's proposed span would offer a more direct linkage to Windsor and would circumvent those traffic snarls at the Canadian end. His idea also has the attractive feature of being named for Gordie Howe, a Canadian by birth but who played for the Detroit Red Wings for many seasons and distinguished himself as an NHL legend. Moroun, not to be outdone, has offered to construct his own bridge adjacent to the Ambassador, while repairs are completed on the older span. He would naturally retain absolute control over both structures and their ongoing and projected revenue streams. Aesthetically, it could be argued that his planned newer bridge clashes with the older one and should be placed, say, a mile or so down the river for a more pleasant prospect. In any case, he has committed himself through court challenges to maintain his current monopolistic position on the river. At times, it seems as if he were a potentate on the Rhine in days of yore. Still, he has provided the region with a more or less efficient river crossing for nearly forty years.
Where will it all end?
Matty Moroun is over ninety years old, but has a son and family to succeed him even after he is gone. Rick Snyder, by contrast, is going to be out of office by the end of 2018. It seems likely as of this writing (May 2018) that either his state attorney general Bill Schuette, or Democrat Gretchen Whitmer will succeed him as governor, so it may eventually fall to the next incumbent to see through Snyder's planned span or to reach a compromise with the Moroun family along the way. However it all ends, it must rank as one of the intriguing American political collisions of our time.