A recent permit granted to the owner of the Ambassador Bridge to build a second span over the river between Windsor and Detroit was a victory for Matty Moroun, the wily American billionaire who has waged a fierce battle to block Ottawa’s construction of its own bridge.
The 90-year-old Moroun has “outmanoeuvred everybody,” said Alfie Morgan, business professor emeritus at the University of Windsor.
And according to some proponents of the Gordie Howe International Bridge, it could be a sign that the Canadian project is doomed.
“It’s not going to happen, and if it’s going to happen, it will be way, way in the distant future,” said Morgan.
The scuttling of the project would mean the loss of millions of taxpayer dollars already spent. The government has doled out an estimated $200 million to acquire and prepare the land it’ll need on the Canadian side and to buy up roughly 70 per cent of the needed properties on the Detroit side, according to the Windsor Star.
Moroun has been waging a two-pronged battle with the Canadian government — fighting in court against the government’s own plan for a bridge between Detroit and Windsor while fighting for a permit to build a new six-lane bridge alongside the four-lane, 87-year-old crossing he owns.
Permit comes with conditions
The fight for that permit has gone on for years, and while Moroun did finally receive approval, it comes with some conditions. The most significant is that Moroun must tear down his current bridge within five years of his new $1-billion span being built, preventing any plans he might have had to control 10 lanes of bridge crossing.
But by awarding that permit to Moroun, Canada seems to have signalled an “abandonment” of the Gordie Howe Bridge project, said Michael Belzer, an associate professor of economics who focuses on transportation economics at Detroit’s Wayne State University.
The permit approval prompted a rare expression of warm feeling from the Moroun family toward the Canadian government. Moroun’s son Matthew, an executive with the company, sent out a statement saying “we especially thank Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Canada for issuance of the final permit supporting our company.”
But those warm feelings were short-lived.
Soon after, Moroun’s lawyers were back in court, standing before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, arguing, again, against construction of the Gordie Howe Bridge.
The trade corridor between Windsor and Detroit is of great economic importance. Along with the Ambassador Bridge, it includes the Windsor-Detroit Tunnel, the Detroit-Windsor Truck Ferry, and the Detroit River Rail Tunnel.
It’s the busiest commercial land border crossing between Canada the United States and handles more than 25 per cent of the overall Canada-U.S. trade per year, with approximately 30 per cent of the trade carried by truck.
Proponents of both the Ambassador Bridge and the Gordie Howe Bridge often cite the need for redundancy, that with so much trade occurring between the two countries, another bridge is vital in case one had to be shut down temporarily.
Moroun has argued that vehicular traffic across his bridge had decreased over the years. While this is true, having a monopoly on the crossing is also a cash cow for Moroun.
The Ambassador Bridge is an anomaly, a major bridge that is privately owned. Moroun’s dogged fight against the Gordie Howe Bridge is unsurprising, as a competing bridge would cut into the more than $60 million a year he rakes in from tolls. And even as Moroun loses case after case in court, any delay caused to the construction of the Gordie Howe Bridge puts money in his pocket.
The Canadian government’s quiet approval of Moroun’s permit was met by anger from residents and business owners in the city’s historic Sandwich Town district near the current bridge. They fear the repercussions from a new bridge span.
The relationship between the community and Moroun is already rough. In his pursuit of a second span, he has gobbled up around 120 homes in the area and boarded them up. Moroun wants to demolish the houses and has refused the city’s request to repair them.
Furious residents have sued Moroun, saying he has turned a once vibrant neighbourhood into an area full of dilapidated buildings.
The billionaire has strategically purchased other homes too — in Michigan, on land needed for the Gordie Howe Bridge, another move designed to frustrate the government’s plans.
The Gordie Howe Bridge is now scheduled to open in 2022, two years later than the initial projection, with construction set to begin next year. But with costs increasing by a projected $2 billion, and now pegged at $4.8 billion, and with federal deficits in the foreseeable future, some observers believe the Canadian government’s commitment has waned.
“From the first weeks of the Trudeau government there was dead silence about the Gordie Howe Bridge,” said Morgan. “The $4 billion, that’s the elephant in the room.”
Gregg Ward, president of the Detroit-Windsor Truck Ferry, who has followed the bridge issue closely over the years, said the announcement of the permit, if nothing else, was poor timing.
At the same time, there were reports that the Windsor-Detroit Bridge Authority, the Crown corporation overseeing the development of the Gordie Howe Bridge, had ousted CEO Michael Cautillo. (The authority later issued a statement clarifying that Cautillo was on a leave of absence due to personal matters but remained CEO.)
And the permit came just weeks after the Windsor-Detroit Bridge Authority gave the contractors bidding on the project four more months to come up with proposals.
“If it is the priority of the government to get this moving, it wouldn’t keep falling behind,” said Ward.
Ward questioned why the government, before granting the permit, didn’t secure major concessions from Moroun, in particular a pledge that he would end his legal battles against the Gordie Howe Bridge.
“You drop your lawsuits, you drop your opposition to the Gordie Howe and sign a global agreement, and move forward on both bridges. But that ain’t what happened.”
Canada could have used its leverage to reach these agreements, said Ward, “but they didn’t do anything.”
Committed to project
The government, however, rejects criticism that it’s not moving forward on the bridge, insisting it remains committed to the project.
During question period on Tuesday, Transport Minister Marc Garneau repeated the government’s “commitment to the Gordie Howe Bridge is 100 per cent.”
Bill Anderson, director of the University of Windsor’s Cross-Border Institute, said he doesn’t see ulterior motives in the government’s decision to award Moroun a permit to build a second span.
“If the government is going to deny them a permit to that, they would need a reason,” he said.
“I think that link that a lot of people are making, that ‘Oh well, this means that the government is backing off or something like that,’ I don’t think that’s the case at all.”
Jack Lessenberry, head of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University, and who has been following the bridge issue, agreed.
He said the government has placed many complex conditions on Moroun in exchange for the permit.
Lessenberry said that it could be a challenge for Moroun just getting permits in the U.S. to take down his bridge, meaning construction on a new span won’t begin any time soon.
“It’s going to take them years to do that, as I read it.”