Morouns win permit to replace Ambassador Bridge

Jim Lynch
The Detroit News

Detroit — The owners of the Ambassador Bridge have received a key permit from the Canadian government to build a cable-stayed bridge alongside the span connecting Detroit with Windsor.

But Michigan and Canadian officials were quick to emphasize Wednesday that the 87-year-old Ambassador Bridge would need to be dismantled within five years of completion of that new span.

Transport Minister Marc Garneau announced Wednesday the Canadian government approved an application for the proposed Ambassador Bridge Enhancement Project, which will see the construction of a replacement six-lane bridge as well as an expansion of the Ambassador Bridge’s associate Canada Border Services Agency facility.

Dan Stamper, a spokesman for billionaire Manuel “Matty” Moroun’s Detroit International Bridge Co., which owns the Ambassador Bridge, described the Canadian permit as the last major regulatory issue to be worked out ahead of construction of the new span.

“We were waiting for the final permit from Canada under the International Bridge and Tunnel Act, which was a new law passed in 2007,” Stamper said Wednesday. “We’ve been waiting for that permit for several years now, and we’re just really excited to know it’s being issued, and we’re going to be able to build this bridge.”

But Gov. Rick Snyder noted Wednesday that construction would not begin “unless and until further governmental approvals in the U.S. are obtained and several conditions established by Canada are met.”

Asked if Michigan’s Department of Transportation had any additional permits or approvals required for the project, a spokesman referred all questions to Transport Canada, the country’s transportation agency.

The Detroit International Bridge Co. has battled for years to construct a second span for its privately owned Ambassador Bridge linking Detroit and Windsor.

The Moroun family wanted the Ambassador Bridge to be closed to traffic but still used in limited circumstances after constructing a new span “for system redundancy.”

Canada said the old bridge is not needed to meet traffic demand or redundancy and could create safety, security or environmental risks.

According to Stamper on Wednesday, the new bridge would take traffic off the Ambassador Bridge, and the ultimate fate of the older span is undecided.

The Canadian government was more clear Wednesday in its expectation of the Ambassador Bridge’s future, saying the project must include “the dismantling of the existing bridge when the replacement bridge is open.”

While the Ambassador Bridge is important to the economic well-being of the region, “it needs to be replaced,” Canadian officials said in a news release.

The aging Ambassador Bridge, which opened in 1929, is the busiest U.S.-Canada crossing point.

Meanwhile, U.S. and Canadian officials have pushed for the creation of a publicly owned span, the Gordie Howe International Bridge, a $2.1 billion bridge that isn’t expected to be open in the nearby Delray area before 2022.

Canada is supplying Michigan’s $550 million share of the Howe bridge, which will have to be repaid through tolls.

According to the bridge company, the new span will have six lanes and run 2,190 feet. It added that building the new span would not cost taxpayers in either country. According to the company, it’s already spent $500 million on the $1 billion project.

In a statement released Wednesday, Canada’s transport minister hinted at a future where both Moroun’s project and the Gordie Howe come to fruition.

“The Government of Canada recognizes the importance of ensuring the continued flow of trade and travelers between Windsor and Detroit, one of the most important Canada-United States border crossings,” Garneau said.

“The construction of the replacement Ambassador Bridge together with the Gordie Howe International Bridge project will ensure that Canadians continue to benefit from the efficient movement of people and goods at this crossing while providing infrastructure improvements for the local community.”

Snyder has long supported the Howe bridge project to ensure an efficient trade corridor with Canada.

The Canadian announcement “also reaffirms the plans for the Gordie Howe International Bridge, which is on schedule to begin significant construction in 2018,” the governor added. “I appreciate the continued partnership with Canada in making the Gordie Howe International Bridge a major infrastructure priority.”

Last month, a state Court of Claims judge dismissed a lawsuit against the state meant to halt construction of the Gordie Howe International Bridge. The legal effort was on behalf of Crown Enterprises Inc. and other companies affiliated with the Moroun family.

The Morouns have been battling the construction of the bridge from Detroit to Canada in both state and federal courts for years. Last year, a federal judge rejected a suit that argued the agreement between Michigan and Canada to build the span over the Detroit River about two miles downstream from Moroun’s bridge was unconstitutionally approved by the U.S. Department of State.

In a press release issued Wednesday, the bridge company thanked Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his country for “this major investment in international infrastructure.”

Matthew Moroun, son of the billionaire industrialist, said in a statement Wednesday that “there have been many challenges our company has faced over the years in pursuit of this moment.”

“We are now tasked with the duty to construct a privately funded bridge with the hard work of thousands of engineers, steel workers, construction experts that will be employed to deliver this once in a lifetime project,” he said.

“We know there are those who never thought our permit would be approved. Hopefully, now we can all come together and take pride in watching a new bridge rise across the shared border between our great nations.”

State Rep. Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit, has long fought for health protections for southwest Detroit residents concerned over the Morouns’ bridge.

On Wednesday, Chang said she will continue to advocate for health and environmental safeguards for the impacted community and assurances the new span will be a replacement, not a twin.

“The company does have a little bit of history in southwest Detroit with maintaining and complying with some things they said they would do,” Chang said. “There’s been broken promises. We just want to make sure everything is done in the manner that it should be done.”

Staff Writers Christine Ferretti and Jonathan Oosting contributed.