The owner of one bridge tries and fails to stop construction of another
IN 1929 Joseph Bower built what was then the world's longest suspension bridge between Detroit, Michigan, and Windsor, Ontario. He called it the Ambassador Bridge to symbolise Canadian-American friendship. But there is nothing neighbourly about the battle between Manuel Moroun, who bought the bridge in 1979, and Canada's government, which wants a rival span built 2km (1.2 miles) away.
The Ambassador Bridge is a glaring bottleneck. More than 10,000 lorries, making up 28% of all goods trade between Canada and America, cross it every day. In Windsor, the bridge disgorges traffic into narrow city streets. "You can drive from Montreal to Miami and only hit 17 stoplights," an old truckers' joke goes. "And all 17 are in Windsor, Ontario." Even a brief bridge closure would be hugely disruptive.
In 2005 Canada unveiled plans for a new bridge named after Gordie Howe, a Canadian ice-hockey hero who played for the Detroit Red Wings. It said the project would create 23,000 jobs, attract investment and save exporters time and money. It would also inflict collateral damage on Mr Moroun: the Howe is expected to slash the Ambassador's toll income by 35-50%.
Mr Moroun has defended the status quo tenaciously. He has argued that Canada reneged on promises to improve road links to the Ambassador. He successfully lobbied for a statewide referendum on the new bridge, only to see Michigan voters support it. His companies refused to sell properties needed for a new customs plaza until Michigan's government expropriated them. And entities he controls have filed lawsuits against governments at all levels on both sides. On August 29th a Michigan judge dismissed one suit, which claimed the state had illegally spent money on the bridge without legislative approval.
Mr Moroun's litigation has delayed construction by about two years. However, he cannot stall indefinitely. Canada now has all the required approvals for the crossing. An expressway between the site of the new bridge and the highway on the Canadian side was completed last year. When the Michigan state legislature refused to finance its share of the estimated $4bn cost, Canada agreed to pay the entire amount itself, with the American portion to be paid back later via tolls. Michael Cautillo, the head of the body overseeing the bridge, confidently predicted in August that construction will start by 2018.
Mr Moroun still has lawsuits pending. On September 6th his firm said that Canada had approved the construction of an adjacent span to replace the existing Ambassador Bridge, which would pose a stronger competitor for the Howe. Nonetheless, facing opposition from the auto and trucking industries and from every government with a say, Mr Moroun might decide to sue for peace instead. After talks with both sides last year, Dwight Duncan, chairman of the new bridge authority, suggested the Canadian government buy the Ambassador Bridge. It is safe to predict that Mr Moroun would drive a hard bargain.