DETROIT -- In this city of relics, one rises above the rest: the Ambassador Bridge, the sole route for almost all freight traffic traveling from here to Canada, and its two 386-foot tall towers. Open since 1929, the bridge is an iconic sight to Detroiters. But even icons have their flaws.
The Big Three automakers so critical to Michigan's economy say they are dangerously reliant on the narrow, 82-year-old bridge's continued good condition. An effort to build a replacement, called the New International Trade Crossing, failed a key vote in Michigan's state Senate last month. Lawmakers balked, even though the state's $550 million contribution required to bring in federal funding would have been paid for by the Canadian government.
A quarter of the United States' freight traffic with Canada crosses over the Ambassador Bridge. Were severe weather or structural deficiencies to close the bridge -- even just briefly -- the "just-in-time" inventory system that the automakers increasingly rely upon could be severely disrupted. Factories on both sides of the river could close within hours: Chrysler, for example, says that engines from Trenton, Mich., cross over for assembly in Canada every day.
"You have a significant bottleneck, the worst bottleneck in the North American freeway system," said Michigan Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, who along with a fellow Republican, Gov. Rick Snyder, has aligned himself with labor and the Big Three in favor of a second bridge over the Detroit River.
Efforts to replace or complement the bridge, however, have hit a bottleneck of their own. In a fluke of history, the Ambassador is controlled by a single, privately owned company -- one that traces its lineage back to the original franchise created by Congress to build the bridge in the 1920s.
"I believe it's the only international border crossing that is privately owned," said Robert Puentes, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program. (The Ambassador is the only major privately owned U.S. international crossing; the Fort Frances-International Falls Bridge is also privately owned.)
In 1921, Congress gave a private company backed by prominent Detroiters a franchise to build a bridge to Canada. The move followed years of schemes to build a tunnel or a bridge, spurred by complaints from private business that crossing the river by ferry, treacherous in winter, was denying them access to markets.
When the bridge-makers began their struggles, there was "no way to know if this is going to work," according to Robert Sedler, a law professor who consults for the company that owns the bridge.
"It's a daunting engineering feat to get a suspension bridge over the Detroit River between Detroit and Windsor," he added. "Also, can you make a financial go of it? Will there be enough traffic over the years to make a financial go of it? So the government of the United States, and the Government of Great Britain, which then had what we call the Dominion of Canada, said, 'let's make a deal.'"
The deal made was for the untested bridge to be built with private money. Shares in the bridge company eventually passed into the control of Manuel "Matty" Moroun, who was born two years before the bridge itself opened in 1929. For decades, in courts and in the halls of power, Moroun has fought a series of battles to keep his hold on the bridge's highly lucrative tolls. Detroit's river crossing options are frozen in time -- and, just as they were during the early 20th century, agricultural and manufacturing interests aren't happy about their current options. Moroun's company, the Detroit International Bridge Company, declined to comment for this article.
It's hard to believe that in this day and age a single individual can have absolute control over such a critical resource as a major international border crossing. This explains the hysterical ads that were run all over Michigan media, shrieking against the proposed new high-traffic bridge that would compete with the Troll.
This ad, which was broadcast over Michigan media ad nauseum, is the hysterical shrieking rant of one entitled Troll who can't stand any kind of competition. So much for "free market capitalism."
As Bugs Bunny would say, "Whatta Moroun!"