There's a reason that the notion of selling the Brooklyn Bridge has long served as shorthand for a rudimentary con job. Public authorities own and administer the span, and so documents decreeing private ownership of the thing are so plainly the handiwork of a scam artist that they've basically been retired from circulation as anything other than a Vaudeville-era punch line.
But greed and vanity reliably trump reason on the American scene, and so the current dust-up over the Ambassador Bridge, which links Detroit and Windsor, Ontario, has the point of the bridge-selling parable precisely backwards. As the main artery for trade between the United States and Canada, the Ambassador is the most heavily traveled bridge in North America, with nine million vehicles fording it each year. It's also the exclusive property of Michigan trucking mogul Manuel "Matty" Moroun, who scooped it up in 1979, two years after the death of its original private developer, Joseph Bower.
The only problem with this arrangement is that the 81-year-old structure is falling apart, its four rickety lanes clogging and crumbling under the weight of one-fourth of the commercial traffic between Canada and the United States. And now the godless welfare state known as Canada has come forward with a proposed loan of $550 million to the recession-battered state of Michigan to fund a new bridge project two miles down river from the Ambassador.
The plan, which would permit the state to repay the loan from future toll revenues, promptly won the backing of many leading Michigan businesses-chiefly the auto industry, which feeds off a steady stream of Canadian-shipped auto parts–and public officials, from Gov. Jennifer Granholm to Detroit Mayor Dave Bing.
But as CNNMoney correspondent Julie Halpert notes, Moroun is doing everything in his power to stand athwart the public-private partnership that would erect the $2.6 billion new structure. Moroun has proposed erecting his own cheaper six-lane span for between $450 and $500 million, right next to the Ambassador, and converting the older bridge to back-up duty when vehicles lack access to the neighboring structure.
Backers of the rival project-called the Detroit River International Crossing-say that adjoining bridges wouldn't afford a workable means of siphoning off excess traffic, particularly in the scenario of a terrorist attack that could take out both structures at once.
And now the Michigan legislature's trying to sort the whole thing out. The state House of Representatives has endorsed the Canuck proposal, with the Senate now preparing to weigh in-and the GOP-controlled chamber is showing early signs that it will do the bidding of Moroun, who is by sheerest coincidence a major Republican donor from way back.
Even so, if the upper chamber signs on with the Moroun plan, it'll have its hands full trying to piece a coherent argument together. Moroun and his son Matt, who helps run the family's Detroit International Bridge Company, maintain that projected Detroit-Windsor traffic won't sustain a second bridge, leaving taxpayers on the hook for tollway shortfalls. Out of the other side of its mouth, meanwhile, their company has filed suit against the Canuck project, alleging that traffic on the new bridge would be so robust as to represent unfair competition with the privately held span-a crassly opportunistic echo of the free-market-for-thee-but-not-for-me position private insurers adopted to smite down a public option during the health-care debate.
But the richest (if you will) complaint that the Morouns brought in the suit is a classic bit of courtroom Astroturfing: the allegation that the Federal Highway Authority "neglected to address environmental justice issues related to the new bridge's effect on the low-income, minority Delray neighborhood of Southwest Detroit."
The Delray community, you see, also abuts the Michigan end of the Ambassador Bridge, and under the Moroun empire's watchful eye, it has already become something of a capital for environmental-justice lawsuits. And it's not as though Moroun hasn't had plenty of opportunities himself to upgrade the blighted area-according to the Detroit Free-Press's tally, he owns 625 properties throughout the city, including Southwest Detroit's landmark Michigan Central Depot, a long-abandoned and dilapidated architectural gem that's come to symbolize Detroit's slide into post-industrial squalor. So far, though, Moroun has confined his civic activism to bankrolling recall petitions against state Rep. Rashida Tlaib, Southwest Detroit's most prominent backer of the public DRIC plan-all firmly rejected for overbroad wording and unsupported claims against the lawmaker.
At least the mogul is admirably consistent in his will-to-privatize. In February, a a Michigan judge ordered him to demolish toll booths and a duty-free store and gas pumps he'd erected on land that actually belonged to the city of Detroit. And like any plucky seeker of the main chance, Moroun is none-too-punctilious about embracing the iron hand of federal authority when it suits his interest: The U.S. government has filed a cease-and-desist order forbidding Moroun from dubbing the Ambassador a "federal instrumentality." As the Windsor Star drily notes, "the bridge owner has used the moniker frequently for years after obtaining a state ruling that allowed him the right to take over city lands in Detroit and gain immunity from regulations."
But now, of course, with no real percentage in fed-impersonating, Moroun and his allies have moved confidently into Tea Partyish denunciations of the federal leviathan. His wife Nora, for instance, has publicly denounced the DRIC project as dagger poised at the heart of "the American dream"-you know, the constitutionally protected right of every freeholder to erect a private transportation monopoly, scoop up speculative slum-lord parcels by the hundreds, and pursue optimal rent-seeking arrangements, legal or otherwise. Son Matt, meanwhile, gives the standard Randian gloss on the battle: "We're doing our best to fight a government takeover of a private business that wants to spend private dollars in Detroit."
Indeed, support for a privatized transportation infrastructure has long been a virtual litmus test for today's fire-breathing libertarian true believer, even though the profit motive has proven a laughably poor means [PDF] of securing basic public goods such as road maintenance and safety. (To get a taste of the exciting, fatality-heavy frontier of privatized roadways, just consult the deadly legacy of deregulation in Moroun's own trucking industry.)
One might reasonably hope that Moroun's antics could become the public face of this dim free-market reverie, and it could pass into the same of annals of half-comical scamming where the deals to buy the Brooklyn Bridge are interred. But the only jokes on offer in our latter-day market order are on places like Southwest Detroit, and the idea of sustaining any legitimate public interest in public goods. And they're getting less goddamn funny all the time.
Archive postcard photo (date unknown) from Brandon Bartoszek's Flickr.