A Billionaire and His Bridge: The Fight Over Detroit's Ambassador Bridge

A little more than 30 years ago, Manuel "Matty" Moroun bought the vast Ambassador Bridge that connects Detroit and Windsor, Ontario. By doing so, Moroun, who is now 83 years old, not only claims the honor of being the only person to privately own a border crossing in the United States but he also enjoys a monopoly over one of the nation's busiest international trade routes. But now, as the Ambassador is starting to show its 81 years, Moroun has found himself in a heated battle with the cities on either end of his bridge,defending his claim to the lucrative trade business that takes place across the Detroit River each year.

While all of the parties agree that the Ambassador, which 9,000 cars a day cross, is past its prime, they are fighting bitterly on how to fix the problem. Two months ago, Canadian officials took matters into their own hands and offered to loan Michigan $550 million to start construction on a new bridge a couple of miles downriver from the Ambassador to be called the Detroit River International Crossing (or DRIC). Such a plan did not sit well with Moroun who argues that a new bridge would unfairly compete with the Ambassador and could potentially burden taxpayers.

Instead, Moroun proposes to put up between $400 million and $500 million to build a new six-lane bridge adjacent to the Ambassador. The old span would run as a back-up if needed, according to CNN Money. However, officials in Michigan and Canada contend that Moroun's plan is not enough and fails to meet security requirements. They argue that the region needs a new bridge -- regardless if Moroun's plan comes to fruition or not.

"One bridge is not enough to handle the truck traffic at the biggest border crossing in North America," says Bill Shreck, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Transportation, which is bidding to be part of a public-private partnership to help build the DRIC.

A By-the-Numbers Battle

Moroun, a trucking tycoon who is estimated to be worth $1.8 billion by Forbes, is lobbying the Michigan legislature to stop a bill to approve the DRIC, which is expected to be voted on this summer. He argues that the state has inflated the traffic needs in the area in order to push its plan through and that taxpayers will inevitably end up footing the bill for the DRIC should tolls not meet these optimistic projections.

The Michigan Department of Transportation says that the DRIC could generate $70.4 million in tolls in its first year -- a revenue stream that is desperately needed by Detroit's ailing economy -- and could grow to almost $240 million by 2040. It also claims that toll payers, not taxpayers, will be paying for the bridge.

The MDOT has also claimed that both the DRIC and the Ambassador Bridge would make money if the new span is built. But Moroun estimates that the state's bridge could take up to 75% of his commercial traffic, the biggest money maker for any bridge. The Ambassador is currently estimated to generate about $60 million a year in toll revenue, according to Crain's Detroit.

A Bridge with Big Backers

The DRIC has the backing of Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm, Detroit Mayor Dave Bing and the Big Three automakers, which have a big stake in the business of transporting goods across the U.S. border.

For General Motors, the issue is especially important. It employs 9,000 workers in Canada and builds some of its best-selling models there, including the Chevrolet Camaro. Likewise, Chrysler employs 11,000 workers in Canada where it produces the Chrysler Town & Country, Dodge Grand Caravan, Dodge Charger, Dodge Challenger and Chrysler 300.

The border crossings are also critical to Ford (F), says Marcey Evans, a company spokeswoman, in an email. "On a typical day, 600 trucks carrying a full range of components, engines and completed vehicles cross the border between Ontario and Michigan," she says. " Anything that improves the flow of goods across the border will help to improve our business -- which is critical in today's intensely competitive marketplace.

Corrected: Previously, this story said that Moroun was planning to use the new span as a back up bridge if necessary, when in fact the plan is to use the old span as a back up bridge.