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Detroit Bridge Battle Pits City Residents Against Each Other

Ambassador Bridge

First Posted: 11/18/11 09:15 AM ET Updated: 11/18/11 05:58 PM ET

DETROIT -- The battle for a bridge over the Detroit River has been fierce. On one side of the fight stands a billionaire who does not want to see his monopoly on international freight traffic challenged. On the other is a headstrong governor who does not want to see his favorite infrastructure project killed. The casualties along the way have been the people of Detroit, stuck in the center of a bruising, sometimes racially-charged debate over how to revive the region's economy.

Although a state Senate committee voted down his plan for a new bridge, Gov. Rick Snyder's public pronouncements have indicated the battle may continue to rage for quite some time. Snyder and many of Michigan's leading business interests would like to see a bridge called the New International Trade Crossing (NITC) built across the Detroit River to Canada. The NITC would add a second span not far from the Ambassador Bridge, which is privately owned. Its advocates say the new bridge is crucial to the region's infrastructure and necessary to ease truck traffic congestion on the Ambassador. But thus far their efforts have come to naught as they've run up against the Ambassador's billionaire owner and his political influence.

The future of the metropolitan region's economy is held hostage as the state, and Canada, await a resolution. "We've got a lot of optimism that Detroit could be set on a path to success," said Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, a Republican. Building a new bridge to expand freight trucking capacity in the state's largest city wouldn't be a magic bullet for the region's economy, he added, but "the last thing we need are more people avoiding Detroit" because of traffic congestion.

The owner of the Ambassador Bridge, Manuel "Matty" Moroun, has a remarkable talent for creating strange bedfellows among both his enemies and his friends. Snyder, a Republican who used to serve as CEO of a venture capital firm, has been pushing hard for a second bridge to be built, partially with public money, just downriver of the Ambassador. On his side is organized labor, the Big Three automakers and a who's who of Michigan's businesses and Chambers of Commerce.

On Moroun's side are a hodgepodge group of opponents of the NITC. They support Moroun's argument that his Detroit International Bridge Company (DIBC) should be the one to build a "twin" span for the Ambassador. They argue that a "government" bridge (which would be built in concert with a private investor) represents an unfair attempt to undermine Moroun's business.

(The Detroit International Bridge Company declined to comment for this article. "At the request of our PR firm, we are not taking any interviews on this subject. As of now, the issue is dead and we don't want to add any attention to a dead issue," said Jennifer Dennis, a spokeswoman for the company.)

The state legislators who voted down Snyder's plan for a second bridge on Oct. 20 are just the tip of the iceberg. Moroun gave 45 different candidates for the state legislature a total of $565,000 in the last election cycle and contributed to the campaigns of six of the seven members of the state Senate Economic Development Committee. Moroun has also spent another $4.7 million on TV ad buys, according to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network.

It is not just legislators who have been wooed. The Koch brothers-backed group Americans for Prosperity supports Moroun. AFP says it backs Moroun because it backs private enterprise -- his bridge was privately built and remains privately maintained. The New Black Panther Nation/New Marcus Garvey Movement says it supports Moroun out of fears the NITC would reduce money available for welfare payments.

"We are nationalist, African centered, Pan-Africanist in our views," said Minister Malik Shabazz, who has accepted money from Moroun's bridge company. "We don't know no goddamned Tea Party. And as far as the Koch Brothers, I despise them, their actions. But every now and then, the devil may do the right thing."

"I guess we agree on the end result, which is stopping the bridge. But I think our objections to the bridge are based on very different facts," said Annie Patnaude of Americans for Prosperity-Michigan, which has also received money from the Moroun family. "That's politics."

Both AFP and Shabazz say pro-bridge leaders in the Detroit neighborhood where the NITC would touch down, Delray, would misuse a proposed "community benefits agreement." Delray is poor, mostly black and Latino, and the agreement is meant to blunt the negative impact of the bridge's placement.

Within the city, proponents of the community benefits agreement say it will ensure that however successful the new bridge is, it will have a positive impact on its host community. In the meantime, said State Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a Democrat who represents Delray, the new bridge has been delayed in no small part because the bridge company and its allies "have spent millions of dollars injecting race" into the debate.

WHAT CAN BE DONE FOR DELRAY

Just a few years ago, debates over the new bridge centered around where it should be built and whether it would attract enough traffic to justify a government subsidy. When Canada offered to pay Michigan's $550 million contribution for the new bridge in April 2010, the question of where the bridge will touch down, and what the surrounding area would get in return, emerged instead as a central point of contention.

In 2005, a binational commission was appointed to look into building a supplement for the Ambassador Bridge. After four years of study, the bridge planners issued their final environmental statement on placement: Delray. This neighborhood in Southwest Detroit has long been neglected, according to a pastor in the area.

Kevin Casillas, the reverend at Delray's First Latin American Baptist Church, said the area's residential base had been eroded over the years by "many, many projects, like the I-75, the expansion of the water treatment plant." Those projects "kept on cutting out, cutting out portions of the neighborhood, and eventually the city just ignored it more and more as a place for residents."

Tlaib, who represents Delray in the state House, says it is a vibrant community with great potential that has simply been ignored.

"Over 45 percent of the community is Latino," Tlaib said. Since the 2000 Census, "We lost less population than any part of the city. And I give credit to our traction to new immigrants that come to the state of Michigan."

"But there's also challenges," she acknowledged on a van ride through the area, which is pockmarked with vacant lots. The occasional signs of life are not all positive for Delray's residents: factories belch pollution, and Tlaib cries out in surprise as a semi almost sideswipes a group of children waiting for a bus.

"When I go read to the children, I'll ask the kids, 'Raise your hands if you have asthma.' About a third of the kids will raise their hands -- and it's a third-grade class," Tlaib said. According to the Skillman Foundation, Delray's rate of preventable hospitalization of children for asthma is the highest in the city.

Tlaib and Casillas say they realized their poor, politically uninfluential neighborhood would never be able to stop a bridge supported by the Michigan and Canadian governments. So they made a strategic calculation: They would support the new bridge, but only on the condition that its financial backers provided something to Delray in return, in the form of a community benefits agreement.

Tlaib and her allies in Delray, who have formed the Southwest Detroit Community Benefits Coalition, admit they are also motivated at least in part by anger at the actions of Moroun and the DIBC.

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