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WINDSOR—American billionaire Manuel (Matty) Moroun — owner of the Ambassador Bridge and foe of Canada’s plan for a competing bridge over the Detroit River — wants to talk. The message is the Harper government got its numbers wrong but he likes the new guy in Ottawa.
It’s a stunning statement after years of lobbying, litigation and threats to derail what is arguably Canada’s most important infrastructure project, seen as crucial to Canada’s trade and security. The project has been estimated to cost $ 4 billion or even $ 5 billion. Roughly one-quarter of the $ 760 billion in annual trade between the two countries crosses at the Windsor-Detroit border.
The younger Moroun, 44, is vice-chair of CenTra Inc., parent company of the Ambassador Bridge. While he shoulders much of the load in his 88-year-old father’s business empire, sources say big decisions aren’t made without approval from the “old man.”
“It’s a significant development,” said the former Ontario finance minister, a Windsor native. “Clearly, it’s an issue for the political leadership of Prime Minister Trudeau and President (Barack) Obama.”
After the Oct. 19 federal election, the Liberal government moved ahead with the plan for the Gordie Howe International Bridge. Ottawa appointed Duncan head of the Crown corporation that oversees the project that’s in its earliest stage. The top three bidders for its construction and operation were recently announced.
“There has been litigation and fights that have hampered considerable efforts by three Canadian governments and two U.S. presidents to modernize the most significant border crossing in North America,” said Duncan.
An alternative to Moroun’s bridge is so crucial that Canada is paying the entire bill for the bridge, a new customs house on American soil and more transportation infrastructure on the U.S. side. The Harper government said its projections show Canadian taxpayers will recoup the estimated $ 4 billion cost in tolls over 30 years.
Matthew Moroun, in his email, sees it differently.
“Our company and the Harper government spent the last decade fighting unproductively,” he wrote. “Our position was that the Ambassador could be the only bridge. The former government’s position was that their ‘bridge-to-be’ would be able to pay back the taxpayers for the billions of dollars to construct it — even if Canada paid for the U.S. portion.
“We were both wrong and unnecessarily strident.”
He said his company “severely underestimated” the importance of the Windsor-Detroit border crossing to Canada and “the Harper government refused to open its eyes to the fact that actual traffic and toll revenues were only a fraction of the ridiculous projections required to pay back taxpayers.”
The new bridge is of “national import that speaks to our relationship with the U.S. and to our economy,” said Duncan. “This is the third Canadian government that’s dealt with the file” of ensuring redundancy for Moroun’s private crossing.
He added: “Nobody envisioned the Ambassador being closed. It’s needed.” He cited redundancy at the border, significant local traffic needs and, jokingly, summertime jaunts to Detroit for Coney dogs (hot dogs with baked beans and mustard).
Duncan wouldn’t speculate on what the Morouns might have in mind with the message to Trudeau.
The email has a warm tone, and when the Star asked a Moroun company spokesperson for Matthew’s age, he stressed that Matthew and Trudeau are almost the same age. He also asked for Trudeau’s first name, which wasn’t there originally, to be inserted into the message.