Flickr/Angela Anderson-Cobb

A local billionaire is bent on keeping control of Detroit's main connection to Canada, even if he has to stall the development of a new one indefinitely

Eighty-two years ago, officials from Canada and the United States met at the center of the just-finished Ambassador Bridge, celebrating a new border crossing between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario.

Soaring over the Detroit River, the bridge became a symbol of the two automotive cities. It has carried millions of vacationers south, and gamblers to the cities’ casinos. The bridge has appeared in videos by Eminem and Canada’s Sam Roberts Band.

But it is now more a bottleneck than a release valve for the 9,000 people a day who use it.

There’s a push to build a second bridge nearby with the kind of support that might make it seem a no brainer. Michigan’s Republican Governor, Rick Snyder, wants it. So do the heads of the Detroit auto companies, as well as labor unions and many local civic groups.  Canada has even offered to contribute $550 million toward the project, covering Michigan’s costs.

One big obstacle stands in the way: the billionaire owner of the Ambassador Bridge, Manuel “Matty” Moroun.

Yes, the Ambassador Bridge, an international border crossing, is actually privately owned. And Moroun, who made his money in the trucking business, doesn’t want competition to get in the way of his toll revenues – he wants to build his own second bridge. He’s twice managed to persuade Michigan lawmakers, including some who have taken his campaign contributions, to keep the project from going before the legislature for a full vote.

The latest setback came in October, when the bridge proposal failed to make it out of a state senate committee.

Moroun, who is 83, just one year older than the bridge, is no stranger to controversy. Along with the Ambassador Bridge, his company owns another Detroit landmark, the long-vacant Michigan Central railroad terminal that became a prime example of the city’s "ruin porn."

Michigan Central was a bleak, derelict building until a few years back, when the city council threatened to have it demolished.

Then, Moroun launched a clean-up effort that many saw as an effort to win support for the second bridge. Now, the still-empty building has been spruced up, but there is still no use for it.

Moroun says he’s willing to spend his own money to build his own second bridge. Yet, he is also entangled in an unfinished project to update access to the original bridge. Last week, a judge declared Moroun in contempt for court because his company failed to complete its part of construction on the Gateway Project, a series of improvements that would allow bridge users to access the crossing from Interstate 96.

Instead of zipping off the freeway and onto the bridge, motorists have to wind around a service road taking them through Southwest Detroit.

The inconvenience ties up the trucks that ply the bridge, carrying auto parts to and from Canadian and American factories. It has anecdotally discouraged the sorts of casual trips to dine out or buy liquor or candy that used to be a regular feature for residents on both sides.

And, it has forced many people to resort to the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel, which can only be accessed from the cities’ downtowns, and often backs up at rush hour.

For now, the new bridge to Canada is going nowhere, though Snyder vows to bring up the issue again before year’s end. And as Moroun fights his legal battles, he’s not getting out of the way, either.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Angela Anderson-Cobb.

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