BY JACK LESSENBERRY
— Three years ago, I asked U.S. Sen. Carl Levin if anything about Detroit, the city where he was born, surprised him anymore. Yes, he told me, “the power of Matty Moroun.“
That was back when it seemed there was little chance a new bridge over the Detroit River would ever be built, despite clear indications Mr. Moroun’s aged Ambassador Bridge was wearing out.
The Moroun family had bought the bridge in 1979, and years later, effectively bought the Legislature with campaign and other contributions. Bills to approve a new brigde never even got out of committee, even after it was clear the Canadians would pick up all of Michigan’s costs, and Washington would let Lansing use Ottawa’s money to qualify for $2.2 billion in federal highway matching funds.
But on April 12, Gov. Rick Snyder stood triumphant on a podium with top Canadian officials. Secretary of State John Kerry had just announced that a Presidential permit had been issued for the construction of a new bridge.
Last year, the governor had bypassed the Legislature, and concluded an “interlocal” agreement with Canada to build a new bridge about two miles south of the old one.
Matty Moroun was furious, and the 85-year-old billionaire then spent something like $40 million of his money to put a state constitutional amendment on the ballot which would have prevented any new bridge from happening.
But voters overwhelmingly turned it down.
“I’m absolutely delighted. This is a great thing for both our nations,” Roy Norton, the Canadian consul general, told me moments after the announcement. Soon afterwards, Snyder told reporters that the new bridge was “a project where everyone will win.”
“This is more than a bridge to me,” he added. “It’s about jobs and the future of our state.”
Five years ago, this would have seemed impossible. But while Rick Snyder did, indeed, do a great deal to make it happen, there might never have been a new bridge if it hadn’t been for two men who weren’t part of the celebration - but should have been.
Gregg Ward was the first to try and call attention to some of the abuses practiced by the Ambassador Bridge company, starting in the 1990s. He and his father operate a small business called the Detroit-Windsor Truck Ferry. Built in 1929, the Ambassador Bridge isn’t certified as safe for trucks hauling some hazardous materials.
So he and his father haul, on average, a few dozen vehicles a day. The Wards say they faced intimidation from the Morouns, who tried to buy them out. They began to worry that the bridge wasn’t safe, especially since neither government was allowed to inspect it.
Gregg Ward worried what might happen if terrorists blew up the bridge, which hauls half a billion dollars worth of heavy automotive and other manufacturing components across the border every day.
That amounts to a quarter of the value of all U.S.-Canada trade. There is no backup within many miles. That made no sense to the Wards, and Gregg began a long and lonely struggle to inform people that a new bridge was needed.
For a long time, the media paid little attention, even though there was an ironic twist. Any new bridge would more than likely be certified for hazmat.
“If the government does the right thing, it may well put us out of business,” said Ward.
That might be hard, since he is the single parent of two and the main caregiver for an autistic son. Still, he thinks a new bridge is the right thing to do for “the revival for our region.”
Five years ago, a retired investigative reporter and blogger named Joel Thurtell started writing about the bridge. He found that the Morouns had illegally seized part of a city park. They posted phony “Keep Out” signs saying “Department of Homeland Security.”
When Thurtell tried to walk in the park anyway, he was challenged by a “gun-toting goon,” as he put it. He posted stories and pictures on his blog, www.Joelontheroad.com.
People gradually began paying attention — including the mainstream media. In a separate incident, Moroun and the man who runs his company, Dan Stamper, started making news when they repeatedly failed to live up to terms to build new access roads designed to ease congestion in front of their old bridge.
Fourteen months ago, an exasperated Wayne County Circuit Judge, Prentis Edwards, tossed Moroun and Stamper in jail. They were released after a little more than a day, but the public was mesmerized by the spectacle of a billionaire behind bars, and Moroun’s public standing plummeted.
Judge Edwards then ordered the Ambassador Bridge company to pay the state millions to complete the work, at Moroun‘s expense. The reconstruction was then speedily accomplished.
What happens next in the bridge saga is less clear. The Morouns have filed two last-ditch lawsuits in state and federal court.
There are still properties left to be acquired, some of them owned by Moroun. In a best case scenario, a new bridge wouldn’t open to the public before 2019. But that it will eventually happen now seems certain.
That has restored Gregg Ward’s faith in the system.
“There have always been self-serving obstructionists who use their vast wealth to corrupt and undermine our political and justice system,” he told me. But he added that democracies’ “ever-redeeming brilliance is their ability to self-correct.”
“The success of democracy relies in an engaged public. It is time for us all to walk together across a new bridge,” he said.
Increasingly, it looks like the day is coming when that can be so.
Jack Lessenberry, who teaches journalism at Wayne State University, is Michigan Radio’s senior political analyst, ombudsman and writing coach for the Toledo Blade and former foreign correspondent for and executive national editor of The Detroit News. He was named Journalist of the Year in 2002 by the Metropolitan Detroit Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.