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Bridges falling down



Gregg Ward is a boyish-looking 46-year-old with an interesting and crucial job you've probably never heard of. He and his dad run the Detroit-Windsor Truck Ferry, which since 1990 has been the only approved system for taking trucks carrying hazardous materials across this part of the U.S.-Canada border.

That doesn't mean the Wards take all the hazmat across. They don't. Their one barge is only allowed to operate 10 hours a day. In that time they might transport, at most, 50 trucks.

Meanwhile, something like 9,000 trucks use the Ambassador Bridge daily. Naturally, since they aren't taking Gregg's barge, does that mean they are all hauling frozen spinach and motor mounts? Well, hardly.

Plenty of them carry hazmat too.

You see, the bridge, as noted here on March 7, is not, as you might expect, jointly owned by the two nations. They don't even have any say in running it. Instead, it is owned and operated by the minions of one man, a reclusive Grosse Pointe zillionaire named Manuel "Matty" Moroun.

He believes that he is a law unto himself, at least as far as the bridge is concerned. He doesn't allow either country to inspect it. He does what he wants. "He issues letters to those trucks he owns, and perhaps some others, saying they can take hazmat across," Ward said over lunch in Dearborn. Others have told me the same thing. "I get the leftovers — his competitors, maybe."

That may not be fair, but nobody in authority seems to be willing to challenge the man Forbes Magazine called "The troll under the bridge."

Ward, by the way, doesn't fit your image of the typical barge operator. Though he did grow up in Dearborn, he studied political science at the University of Laval in Quebec and got an MBA from Michigan State University after that.

His wife, Margret, is a former diplomat from Iceland who gave up her career to marry Gregg and move to Dearborn. These days, when not at work, Ward is devoted to his two children, one of whom has autism.

He has never had any serious run-ins with Moroun, who turned 80 last week, though he says he shook off one attempt to take over his barge company. In fact, Ward realizes his modest business is allowed to exist at least partly because it suits Moroun and his Warren-based CenTra, Inc. trucking empire.

Though nobody really knows what condition the Ambassador is in, it is clearly wearing out. It was built for 1929 traffic. The lanes are too narrow, the approaches too steep. Now there is a competition on to build a new bridge.

For years, Moroun stoutly opposed any new bridge, claiming one isn't needed. Then suddenly, he, or rather, his spokesman, said he intends to build a second bridge right next to the Ambassador. Plenty of people oppose that.

The folks in the Windsor neighborhoods around the bridge loathe the idea. Too often, trucks back up onto their streets. Truckers on that side of the water hate it too. They have to endure 17 traffic lights just to get to the bridge.

A group called the Detroit River International Crossing, or DRIC, wants to build a new bridge a mile or so downstream. That proposal is being backed not only by all the governments concerned, but by the automotive industry as well.

Auto manufacturers and parts suppliers are the most important users of the bridge. Most of the stuff it carries is, in fact, for the auto industry. And here's the really key thing to remember. If anything happened to the bridge, there is no backup system. None. The Blue Water Bridge in Port Huron couldn't handle all that cargo. Most large trucks cannot fit through the Detroit-Windsor tunnel.  

Gregg Ward knows all that. He also knows that if a modern government bridge is built, such as the one proposed by DRIC, it might be certified for hazmat.

A new bridge could, in fact, put him out of business.

Nevertheless, Ward is campaigning against letting Moroun build another span right next to his aging Ambassador Bridge. Frankly, he thinks the chances aren't too good of stopping Moroun from doing whatever he wants.

"He may just build it. He may suddenly announce that the old bridge isn't safe anymore, and that he is going to close it as soon as he gets a new twin bridge across. Do you think anyone is going to stop him?"

Well, they should. The Bush administration continues to proclaim that we are in mortal danger from terrorists. Earlier this month, the government arrested a bunch of shadowy alleged conspirators in a so-called plot to blow up Kennedy Airport, a plot even the feds admitted was "not technically feasible."

Well, here's something that is feasible: Someone with a bomb in a car or a small boat could conceivably take out the Ambassador. The result would be devastating to our economy, and have an impact possibly worse than losing the World Trade Center. For our already troubled auto industry, it might be a date with Dr. Death.

Yet too few people seem to care. The Detroit newspapers and, as far as I can tell, Gov. Jennifer Granholm, are all for letting Our Matty go ahead.

After all, they reason that would cost less. He's a private developer; the customs posts, etc., are already there. And, in the short run, it probably would be cheaper, though perhaps by not as much as CenTra wants you to believe.

In fact, much of the cost of the DRIC bridge could easily be borne by private investment. Nobody is telling Moroun to close the Ambassador, by the way; the thinking is that it would make a lot of sense to have two competing bridges not right next to each other. That might even make things cheaper for the consumer. But who could possibly want that?

Our best hope at this point is that the Canadian governments, which have to approve any new bridge, hopefully have the strength to just say no.

Michigan's cash-strapped government has been thinking of pulling out of DRIC, and rolling over for Matty Moroun, who has been known to make a campaign contribution or two. You might let your elected leaders know what you think. And if you want to know what kind of corporate citizen old Matty really is, glance at the ghastly ruin of the Michigan Central Railroad Station, which he owns, can't sell, won't fix up and refuses to tear down.

Do you really want to add to his empire?


One cheer for the mainstream media: I've once or twice gently chided the Detroit papers for neglecting the significant in favor of the sordid and trivial. So it was with mild astonishment that I noticed that both papers were markedly restrained last weekend in the gallons of ink they gave to America's No. 1 worthless tabloid trash story, Paris Hilton's jailhouse woes.

True, the News had a garish "Back to the Slammer" box above the headlines. But the story was buried, and little appeared in the Freep.

Could it be that the folks running these papers realized that anyone who cares anything about Paris et al., is likely not a newspaper reader?

Might they have realized that the collapse of our state's economy could be a little more relevant to the average poor guy trying to cope? Well, as the Prophet Leroy told me one rainy night ... we'll see.

Or as the philosophers say, "ta" for now.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Contact him at

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