Trade Ambassador

Trade Ambassador

Anyone wondering where questions surrounding U.S. exports intersect with concerns over transportation will find plenty of time to contemplate the issues while waiting in a line of trucks at the bridge crossing between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario.

The Ambassador Bridge marks the United States’ busiest border crossing point, and although the span connects the U.S. and Canada, it’s a striking example of the disconnect between the broad interests of shippers on both sides of the border and the infrastructure they need to expand trade.

That’s because the bridge, which carries so much volume, offers so many opportunities and faces so many challenges, is owned by one man — transportation entrepreneur Manuel “Matty” Maroun. It’s an oddity in the world of international trade and one that went largely unnoticed during many years of relatively routine border trade.

But this seeming sideshow from another era is running hard up against the realities of global trade, and government officials in Canada and the United States are trying to bring the crossing into the modern world.

Virtually everyone, even perhaps Maroun, believes the Ambassador Bridge needs repair and a second span to add capacity.

Maroun is fighting a plan by a consortium of the national governments of the U.S. and the Canada and the governments of Michigan and Ontario to build a second, publicly owned bridge two miles down river from the Ambassador Bridge. He filed suit last week against the U.S. and Canada saying the Detroit River International Crossing, or DRIC, project would violate his exclusive franchise to operate a bridge crossing and to build his own second span.

Maroun’s idea of public-private partnership, in other words, is that the public should pay the tolls while he privately counts the profit.

That’s not lost on the companies that depend on the border crossing.

“As a representative of private- sector associations, in principle, I have no problem with privately owned infrastructure,” David H. Bradley, president and CEO of the Canadian Trucking Alliance, told us. “If we were being offered two efficient crossings, I’d say the more the better. But that is not what the opponents of DRIC are proposing.”

He said a survey of Canadian truckers found 71 percent favor government construction of a new bridge over Maroun’s vague plans for his own second span.

Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchi-onne endorsed the government plan this month, telling a meeting of automobile parts suppliers the auto industry supports the DRIC plan. “It is imperative that this new crossing be completed as soon as possible,” he said in his prepared remarks. “It’s important to our collective future.”

For the state, the government plan would create 10,000 jobs right away. Longer term, a study said, the stronger trade and business would foster another 30,000 jobs.

The Michigan Legislature is scheduled June 1 to consider whether to authorize construction of the DRIC project. Maroun will be fighting that plan in the Legislature and in the courts. Shippers and anyone else with an interest in trade have much to gain if he loses.

Paul Page is executive director of The Journal of Commerce. He can be contacted at 202-355-1170, or at ppage@joc.com. Follow Paul Page on Twitter, www.twitter.com/paulpage.