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(Jeffrey Sauger)
(Jeffrey Sauger)

Barrie McKenna

The foreign owner of Canada's vital U.S. trade link Add to ...

Imagine if the Port of Vancouver, the St. Lawrence Seaway or Pearson Airport was controlled by a foreign-owned private company, led by one man.

Ridiculous, right?

Canadians rely on these strategic national assets to trade, to work and to prosper. They’re also potential terrorist targets.

And yet for decades, U.S. billionaire Manuel (Matty) Moroun, 83, has owned the most vital piece of trade infrastructure linking Canada and the United States – the Ambassador Bridge. Every year, millions of trucks carrying goods worth nearly $150-billion rumble across the 2.3-kilometre span between Windsor and Detroit. A quarter of merchandise trade between the two countries flows through Mr. Moroun’s toll booths, including a sizable chunk of all the vehicles and car parts made in Canada and the United States.

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Like the troll in the Three Billy Goats Gruff fairy tale, Mr. Moroun calls the shots on his 82-year-old bridge. Expand it, move it or rebuild it: Everything goes through him.

Ottawa would love to throw the troll from the bridge. Or at least, build a new, bigger and speedier bridge just downstream that would wreck his lucrative business and bypass the congested streets of downtown Windsor and Detroit.

The Harper government and the bureaucrats at Transport Canada are betting that the proposed $5.3-billion (U.S.) Detroit River International Crossing project, or DRIC, will relegate the Ambassador Bridge to a sleepy secondary span, used mainly by local car traffic.

But the plan keeps running into obstacles, and Mr. Moroun.

There’s a new Michigan governor, Republican Rick Snyder, who replaced bridge supporter Jennifer Granholm. Mr. Snyder seems sympathetic to Mr. Moroun’s plan to double the capacity of the Ambassador Bridge. He’s also filled a number of key cabinet positions with supporters of the new crossing. So no one really knows for sure how he’ll come down.

Canadian officials are quietly hopeful the Michigan legislature will approve the project early in the new year. If all goes well, work on the new bridge could get started sometime in 2011.

Don’t bet on it. The well-connected and litigious Mr. Moroun has made it clear he will fight the project to the end.

Mr. Moroun has lots of money and political friends in high places. And he owns large tracts of land at both ends of the new bridge that he’s clearly prepared to exploit in various legal manoeuvres. He’s already sued various Canadian and U.S. authorities on several fronts for thwarting his bid to build a second span at the Ambassador Bridge site.

Even after the new bridge is in place, Mr. Moroun is well-placed to be a spoiler. He can slash tolls and make special deals to entice trucks to keep using his bridge.

That would lure traffic away from the DRIC and cut into projected revenue on the new bridge, leaving Canadian taxpayers on the hook for a potentially large bill down the road. Ottawa expects to recoup a $550-million loan to Michigan for the project by pocketing a share of the tolls.

There was, and perhaps still is, a better way to deal with Mr. Moroun: buy his bridge. Put it firmly in the hands of the Canadian people, where it belongs. That way, Canada can do with the old bridge whatever it wants, without interference.

And as recently as a year ago, it looked like that was exactly what the Harper government would do.

Ottawa quietly opened negotiations with Mr. Moroun in 2008, and pursued them again last year. Mr. Moroun even visited Ottawa in the summer of 2008 to discuss the deal. The price at the time was somewhere in the range of $1-billion to $2-billion.

Ottawa even explored the possibility of offering Mr. Moroun sweeteners, including a contract to operate the new bridge, plus other bridges along the Ontario-U.S. border.

Yes, $2-billion is a steep price for a Depression-era hunk of steel and concrete. But the bridge may never come this cheaply again. Traffic is building now that the recession is over and the auto industry is coming back.

The purchase talks ended abruptly late last year. Federal officials insist the price Mr. Moroun wanted was ridiculously high for a bridge that badly needs to be upgraded and modernized.

Now, the throw-Matty-from-the-bridge crowd at Transport Canada is back in charge.

So the file languishes. The goats and the troll glaring at each other across the Detroit river.

It remains to be seen if Ottawa can get its new bridge built without Mr. Moroun on side.

Rest assured, we haven’t heard the last of the troll.

Follow on Twitter: @barriemckenna

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