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Jack Lessenberry

Jack Lessenberry

A New Ambassador Bridge? Well, Sorta…

September 15, 2017

DETROIT – The news came as a shock to those who have been waiting for years for construction on the new Gordie Howe International Bridge over the Detroit River to begin.  Suddenly, seemingly out of the blue, Canada’s government announced Sept. 6 that Matty Moroun, the owner of the aging Ambassador Bridge, had been granted approval to build a new one next to it, something he had wanted for years.

What was going on? Did this mean the long-planned new bridge was dead? Had the Moroun family somehow made a backroom deal with Canada’s liberal government?

“From the cheap seats, it sure looks like the fix is in,” said Gregg Ward, the owner of a truck ferry service and a longtime opponent of Moroun’s efforts to maintain a monopoly over both nations’ most economically important border crossing.

But in fact, many in the media may have overreacted – or failed to read the fine print.  High officials in both governments indicated, on and off the record, that nothing had changed.  And the conditions Canada has set before a single shovel can go into the ground for an Ambassador Bridge replacement are extremely taxing, and may take years to fulfill.

Michigan is also certain to have conditions, too.

First, a little background:  The Ambassador Bridge between Michigan and Ontario was built in 1929 with private funds, and is currently owned by Matty Moroun, a billionaire trucking magnate.  More than $2 billion in heavy manufacturing components move across the bridge every week.  Construction on a new publicly owned Gordie Howe International Bridge is expected to begin next year.

Moroun’s Detroit International Bridge Company argued for years first that a new one was not needed, before saying he should be allowed to build one instead.  Canadian officials felt this made little sense, since the Ambassador ends in residential neighborhoods on both sides of the border, and trucks have to go through a dozen lights before reaching Highway 401, the main freeway.

Finally, Canada made an agreement with Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder for a new bridge a mile south, which will have access roads directly designed to swoop traffic from one freeway to another. There have been many delays – and many unsuccessful Moroun lawsuits aiming to stop the project.  Officials on both sides of the border say, however, shovels will be in the ground before the end of next year.

But does granting Moroun permission to build a second span threaten to delay or cancel the new bridge?  Officials familiar with the project in both countries say no. “The thing we are trying to convey is that nothing has changed about this project from our point of view,” said Andrew Doctoroff, Snyder’s “point man,” on bridge issues.  Officials familiar with the project in both countries say reporters who automatically assumed this gives Moroun a green light may not have carefully read the detailed schedule of 28 “terms and conditions” Canada attached to their approval.  They include a requirement that the Ambassador Bridge owners get demolition permits for the old bridge from both nations before any construction starts.   Getting such permits for a major structure is an extremely difficult process in both countries.

The Ambassador Bridge owners, who are chartered as the Canadian Transit Company in that country, have many other hurdles to jump through.  They have to somehow buy a portion of Huron Church Road and relocate it at their expense.

They will have to consult with a Native American tribe, the Walpole Island First Nation, about any archeological or other concerns they may have about a new bridge.  Moroun will also have to repair and improve a number of other roads, pay for public utility relocations and easements, and “implement and comply with,” exacting Canadian environmental assessment rules.  Plus, his Canadian Transit Company “shall, at its own cost and prior to commencement of that work, cause Fire Hall No. 4, located at 2600 College Avenue, to be relocated to a location in Windsor,” within certain precise boundaries. 

Suffice it to say that construction on any new Ambassador Bridge isn’t going to start any time soon. Echoing Canada, Snyder said construction wouldn’t begin “unless and until further governmental approvals in the U.S. are obtained.”

You can bet his administration, which has been continually sued by Moroun in an effort to stop the new bridge, isn’t going to be in a hurry to help expedite that process.  What really seems to have happened here was a rare public relations flub by the Canadian government.

Canada always has believed there should be two bridges across the river, because it is so important to the economies of both nations – especially Michigan, Ohio and Ontario.  Ideally, they want the Ambassador Bridge, which is rapidly deteriorating, replaced once the Howe bridge is up and running.  The permit for the Morouns was long in the works. But when it was granted, Canada made the mistake of first allowing the Ambassador Bridge company to announce it – and exaggerate the scope of what this meant.  Later, Ottawa hurriedly issued two press releases, one of which was dated “Sept. XX” and another with the wrong date. 

Both governments hope there will be two new bridges a decade from now, with the vast majority of heavy transport moving on the much more efficient Gordie Howe bridge.  However, so far, getting there has been anything but smooth. Gregg Ward, who has been sort of a one-man clearing house for bridge information, thinks there are still “more cards to be played.” Past experience indicates he may well be right.   

Jack Lessenberry is the head of journalism at Wayne State University, serves as Michigan Radio’s senior political analyst and writes regularly for several publications. He also serves as The Toledo Blade’s writing coach and ombudsman and is host of the weekly television show Deadline Now on WGTE-TV in Toledo.

September 14, 2017 · Filed under Jack Lessenberry



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