Traverse City Record-Eagle

Op-Ed Columns

September 16, 2012

Jack Lessenberry: Hidden agenda behind bridge?

So why is Canada hot to build a new bridge across the Detroit River — so hot that their government has offered to pay all Michigan's costs? Is there some dark hidden agenda?

Matty Moroun wants you to think so. He is the billionaire owner of the 1929-era Ambassador Bridge, which carries more than $100 billion in heavy automotive components across the border every year.

That freight can't go through the Detroit-Windsor tunnel. Port Huron's Blue Water Bridge is too far away and is already overburdened. Moroun owns what is essentially a monopoly.

But does Michigan really need another bridge?

Roy Norton, Canada's Consul General in this part of the world, has a simple, succinct answer: "Both countries need this bridge, if they want to have prosperity in the future." Forget debates about whether there is enough traffic for two bridges. Nothing lasts forever, "and an 83-year-old bridge is a pretty fragile reed on which to hang our economic future. Ours, and yours," the veteran diplomat said, smiling wryly.

Last week, during an intense, two-hour interview. Norton made it clear that Canada, indeed, has an agenda — but there's nothing hidden about it: Get the bridge built.

"This is Canada's No. 1 national infrastructure priority. According to Prime Minister (Stephen) Harper, it is North America's most important infrastructure priority," Norton said.

Plainly, he thinks it should be Michigan's top priority, too. He has plenty of company in that belief. Gov. Rick Snyder signed an agreement in June to build a New International Trade Crossing two miles south of the Ambassador Bridge.

The legislatures in Ohio and Indiana have unanimously voted support for a new crossing. Ohio State Rep. Terry Boose, R-Norwalk, calls himself a "deeply conservative, pro-liberty" Republican. And he teamed up with liberal Democrat Mark Foley to co-sponsor a resolution "to send a message" to Michigan to get on with the new bridge. Trade with Canada "is estimated to be responsible for supporting 301,100 jobs in Ohio."

"Both our states will benefit," he declared.

In Michigan, the new bridge is strongly backed by just about every major interest group — the automotive companies, the chambers of commerce, and every living former governor.

There are, in fact, only two centers of opposition. One is the Michigan Legislature, where the Moroun family has strategically contributed lavishly to lawmakers' campaigns.

The result is that while Republicans in other states unanimously want a new bridge, Michigan's governor wasn't even able to get his fellow Republicans to bring the bridge bill to the floor.

The other opponent is the Moroun family itself, 85-year-old Matty, his wife Nora, and son Matthew, who have spent millions in a non-stop effort to confuse the public, largely by running TV commercials independent observers say are riddled with falsehoods.

"Their television advertising tells some very big lies," Mr. Norton said. "They complain that the bridge will cost Michigan taxpayers $2 billion or $8 billion up front, and then $100 million a year."

"Totally wrong — the bridge will cost Michigan taxpayers nothing, It's time that somebody exposed these lies." It is extremely rare for a Canadian diplomat to speak that strongly. But Norton is not a typical consul general. Past consul generals have mainly been trade commissioners.

But the 58-year-old Norton has far broader experience. Before coming to Detroit in 2010, he was a top-ranking minister in Canada's embassy in Washington, responsible for relations with Congress and intergovernmental affairs. He has advanced degrees in government and economics from Harvard University and Johns Hopkins.

Though he is responsible for all trade issues in Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana and Michigan, he was plainly sent here to get this bridge built. Few issues are black and white, and my question was simple: What is the downside for the United States? Why is Canada willing to pay our share?

"Canadians aren't in the habit of making irresponsible financial commitments," he told a group of businessmen in Traverse City last month. "What would be irresponsible would be to simply cross our fingers and hope that an 83-year old piece of critical infrastructure," namely, the Ambassador Bridge, would last forever.

"But sound public policy can't be based on irrational hope." Though he wouldn't say so, my sense is that Canada is somewhat exasperated at the unwillingness of business interests to step up and mount an advertising campaign of their own.

They have, as he noted, everything to gain.

Not only has Michigan nothing to lose, not building the new bridge would cost the state $2.1 billion in federal highway matching funds tied to our accepting Canada's offer.

As it now stands, the new bridge is going to happen. Gov. Snyder found a way to bypass the Legislature and sign an agreement in June to build the new crossing. But the Morouns spent millions to get a constitutional amendment on the November ballot to prevent any new bridge from being built without a statewide vote.

Both Roy Norton and Rick Snyder maintain that the new bridge would be unaffected, even if the "Moroun amendment" were to pass. But lawsuits would be certain to result, possibly delaying things.

"If good people don't step up, then those motivated only by private greed will buy victory for themselves," Norton said.

You don't have to be Canadian to see how true that is.

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