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Manuel (Matty) Moroun (Jeffrey Sauger)
Manuel (Matty) Moroun (Jeffrey Sauger)

A bridge too far? Add to ...

Manuel (Matty) Moroun is arguably the most powerful U.S. businessman most Americans and Canadians have never heard of. Ideally, he would like to keep it that way. But in the twilight of his career, the 79-year-old billionaire has decided to lift the veil on his high-stakes battle to maintain control over the most important transportation link between Canada and its largest trading partner.

The sole owner of the Ambassador Bridge at the Detroit-Windsor border since 1979, Mr. Moroun has spent a half-billion dollars building a land portfolio in the region to make possible his dream to add a new link to the corridor. The busiest commercial crossing in North America has become a choke point ever since extra security checks were introduced after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States.

For the past 15 years, Mr. Moroun has accumulated property in Detroit and Windsor, positioning himself to build a new span next to the 77-year-old Ambassador Bridge. But the quest to strengthen his stranglehold on commercial truck traffic is being threatened, and he is in danger of being elbowed aside by a competing proposal backed by governments on both sides of the border. At risk is not only his virtual monopoly, but the viability of his existing business running the old bridge as well.

In recent years, he has drawn more media attention and it's clearly irritated him. Much of the focus has centred on the bridge being a potential terrorist target - an invaluable link that if attacked, would devastate merchandise trade between Canada and the United States, slamming the economies of Ontario and Michigan.

The coverage has been less than flattering, culminating with a headline published by Forbes in 2004, in which the magazine described him as "the troll under the bridge" after he refused to be interviewed for any stories by national media in Canada and the United States. Through it all, he has maintained his privacy trumps public curiosity, making him Michigan's version of a Howard Hughes-type recluse.

But Mr. Moroun is letting his guard down, at least a little, because he is in the business battle of his life. On a sunny day with traffic backed up on the bridge, two of Mr. Moroun's aides escort me to a squat brick building with tinted windows in suburban Detroit. There are no signs outside to alert passersby of the transportation empire inside, and that's just the way the billionaire bridge owner likes it.

Mr. Moroun has a spacious but spartan office in the former middle school, a 15-minute drive from his beloved toll bridge - or at least that's the driving time when nearby roads aren't congested. My rush-hour trip, with the aides cautioning that Mr. Moroun distrusts the media, takes nearly 30 minutes.

Where there would normally be a basketball court and other school amenities, there's an employee parking lot at the back of Mr. Moroun's Warren, Mich.-based CenTra Inc. The setup is ideal for him, protecting his privacy from a stream of traffic in front of the building.

During the next two hours, the secretive Michigan businessman steps out from the shadows, lashing out at his opponents and serving notice that he intends to effectively twin the 2.3-kilometre Ambassador Bridge, aiming to start construction as early as mid-2008.

It becomes clear that Mr. Moroun is tired of the negative image being painted of him. He intends to win this fight and get construction under way, before easing into retirement in his eighties and handing over the business to his son Matthew, now 33.

For Matty Moroun, the troll analogy has come to symbolize how he is misunderstood as a greedy bully looking to profit with every toll he collects. "It hurts. I bruise, but I don't cry too loudly about it," he says at the head of a long table in a boardroom at CenTra's head office.

Positions on the battlefield

Mr. Moroun prefers to focus on the fight ahead. His major competition comes from a bridge proposal being developed by a group called the Detroit River International Crossing, or DRIC, backed by governments in Canada and the United States. Another rival plan, featuring a tunnel under the Detroit River, is giving him headaches too, but it's DRIC that worries him the most.

He argues that he deserves to keep control over the Detroit-Windsor artery because he has the most expertise unsnarling trucking jam-ups and helping guard against terrorism. His suspension bridge across the Detroit River is a crucial lifeline for continental commerce. Nearly 9,000 commercial trucks and 15,500 other vehicles cross the span every day, often wasting fuel and time due to frequent bottlenecks. Goods worth $150-billion, or one-quarter of the annual merchandise trade between Canada and the United States, flow across the bridge.

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