Traverse City Record-Eagle

November 18, 2012

Jack Lessenberry: Matty Moroun


DETROIT — Suppose the day after the presidential election, Mitt Romney had his spokesman announce that he didn't accept the verdict, that he believed President Obama wasn't a legitimate president because he was born in Kenya, or maybe on Pluto, and hinted he was going to sue to prevent him from staying in office.

Sound farfetched? Well, no more so than the latest antics from Michigan's least-beloved billionaire, Ambassador Bridge owner Manuel "Matty" Moroun. After months of trying to preserve his monopoly with a shameless and misleading ballot proposal campaign called "Let the People Decide," the people did, indeed, decide.

And the Morouns didn't like the verdict one bit.

For on Election Day, Michigan voters overwhelmingly rejected Proposal 6, a state constitutional amendment designed to protect the Moroun family's monopoly control over moving billions of dollars across the Detroit River.

Moroun, his wife Nora and son Matthew are the sole owners of the Ambassador Bridge, currently the only place between Buffalo, N.Y. and Port Huron where heavy automotive components and other freight can be hauled across the Detroit River.

The Ambassador, built in 1929, is showing increasing signs of wear, including holes in the pavement and road bed.

For years, political and business leaders argued that a new bridge was needed. This year, they finally did something about it. Governor Rick Snyder, a pro-business Republican, and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper signed a deal in June to build a second bridge, tentatively called the New International Trade Crossing, about two miles south of the Ambassador Bridge.

The deal was an amazing bargain for Michigan. Canada agreed to cover, up-front, all the state's costs, an estimated $550 million, money that will be paid back only when the bridge is built years from now, out of the state's share of tolls.

Additionally, Washington agreed the Canadian cash can be used as matching funds for a federal highway grant, meaning Michigan should get $2.2 billion in badly needed funds to fix the state's roads, free of charge.

But if that was a good deal for the citizens, it enraged 85-year-old Matty Moroun, who is believed to make as much as $140 million a year from tolls, and sales of gasoline and items from his duty-free shops. He has contributed hundreds of thousands to state legislators' campaigns and pet causes, and was able to block any bridge bill from coming to a vote in the legislature.

However, the governor found a clause in the state constitution that enabled him to bypass the legislature by making an "interlocal" agreement with Canada. The Morouns then spent at least $34 million to try to muscle an amendment protecting their monopoly into the state constitution. First, they paid out-of-state firms to collect the needed signatures to put it on the ballot. Next, they flooded the airwaves with incessant commercials that the nonpartisan Michigan Truth Squad said were "flagrantly foul," as in, totally false.

Canada's Consul General in Detroit, Roy Norton, was peeved that Michigan business interests, primary the big three automakers, didn't fund an ad campaign to counter Moroun's. But it turned out it wasn't needed. The voters didn't buy Matty's lies.

Instead, they overwhelmingly rejected the Moroun amendment by a stunning 844,000 votes. Yet the next morning, Moroun spokesman Mickey Blashfield acted as if the election had never occurred. "It would be a mistake to assume taxpayers support a flawed government bridge that puts taxpayers at risk," he said.

He then charged that the proposed new bridge was going to be built over "unstable salt mine foundations."

The salt mine charge was dismissed with a laugh by a spokesperson for the governor, who said "it's full steam ahead."

But Sandy Baruah, the president of the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce, said he fully expected the Moroun family to file more lawsuits designed at stalling the new bridge.

"They use the court system like I use the bathroom," he told Crain's Detroit Business. Baruah, a strong supporter of the new bridge, added that for the Morouns, even hopeless lawsuits make sense. If they can delay a new bridge even a year, that means more tens of millions in profits for their monopoly interest.

Even in a best case scenario, ground for the new bridge is unlikely to be broken before late next year at the earliest; the soonest a new bridge could open is 2017 or 2018.

Meanwhile, the Morouns are attempting to further confuse things by alternatively saying a new bridge isn't needed, and that they intend to build a second one next to the Ambassador.

Various Canadian government officials say they would never allow that to happen, for environmental and traffic congestion reasons. They also openly loathe and distrust Moroun.

What may be most baffling is why an 85-year-old man whose net worth is at least $1.5 billion thinks he needs more money, or whether the thrill is in the power a monopoly brings.

Perhaps not even Matty Moroun really knows.