How One Man Turned The Busiest International Border Crossing In North America Into The Centerpiece Of His Empire

General view of the Ambassador Bridge that connects Detroit and Windsor, Canada on March 18, 2020 in Detroit, Michigan. The U.S. and Canada have agreed to temporarily restrict all nonessential travel across the border after the World Health Organization (WHO) declared coronavirus (COVID-19) a pandemic
General view of the Ambassador Bridge that connects Detroit and Windsor, Canada on March 18, 2020 in Detroit, Michigan. The U.S. and Canada have agreed to temporarily restrict all nonessential travel across the border after the World Health Organization (WHO) declared coronavirus (COVID-19) a pandemic
Image: Gregory Shamus (Getty Images)
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Manuel “Matty” Moroun died on Monday at 93 years old. That name might not mean much to you if you’re not from metro Detroit or Windsor, Canada, but around these parts, he was known mainly as the billionaire who owned, among other things, the Ambassador Bridge, which just happens to carry roughly 27 percent of all merchandise trade between Canada and the U.S.

That’s $400 billion in trade a year, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation with an average of $500 million in trade crossing the bridge daily. It generated $60 million in tolls for Moroun, according to the Detroit Free Press. At least 40 percent of trucking shipments into the US cross this bridge and the closest secondary crossing for big rigs is over two hours away, Forbes reports.

Not only is it the busiest international crossing in North America, but it is also the only one to be privately owned. Does it seem to you like this span is too important a crossing to be in private ownership? Because it always has to me! It spent two years as the longest suspension bridge in the world. How do you just own something so massive and crucial to the functioning of two huge economies?

I have lived with this strange fact in this strange town all my life and, no matter how it has been explained to me, it still boggles my mind. So I’m going to try and explain it to you, and hopefully, we can figure it out together.

First, how the bridge itself came to be.

The Ambassador Bridge: Privately Owned From The Start

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Image: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images (Getty Images)

In the ‘20s, Detroit was the place to be. Jobs were plentiful, and access to cheap then-illegal booze was just a stone’s throw away in Ontario, creating a hotspot for arts, nightlife, and organized crime in the Motor City. While there were both honest and less-than-honest ways to make a living in Detroit, before 1927, the only way to conduct business with Windsor, Ontario or vice versa year-round was by boat (though bootleggers famously would drive across the frozen solid Detroit River in the winter in order to pick up illegal hooch. Now smugglers use submarines.)

It was a particular pain because large Great Lakes freighters were constantly heading up and down the river to access points along the Great Lakes while smaller boats ferried goods and people across the river leading to monumental traffic jams. The smaller ferries were also ineffective at carrying large loads, meaning a single train car might require multiple trips to unload into the neighboring country, leading to rail jams as well. Various private companies and governmental bodies tried to come up with a plan to build a bridge across the river but the cost and the protests of ship captains eager to keep their lucrative gigs kept the plans from ever really getting off the ground, according to The Ambassador Bridge: A Monument to Progress.

As Henry Ford said about the project, which he financially backed “The only way things can be done today, is by private business.” Indeed, cities in Michigan had allowed auto companies to build bridges over streets for years, and the Ambassador Bridge was seen as merely an extension of that process by business leaders. In the mid-1920s, New York businessman John W. Austin approached Detroit financier Joesph Bower about reviving one of the previously failed attempts to build a bridge. The Detroit Historical Society has a very succinct rundown of the effort:

Several bridge proposals failed due to claims that it would be a navigation hazard, be too expensive, or that there would be restrictions on its use. In the mid-1920s, John W. Austin approached Detroit financier Joseph A. Bower with a feasible bridge plan. Bower came up with the necessary funding of $23.5 million, yet the plan was temporarily thwarted by Detroit Mayor John Smith, who opposed a privately-owned bridge. Detroiters voted overwhelmingly in favor of the bridge construction in a referendum on June 28, 1927.

The McClintic-Marshall Company of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania – that would later build the Golden Gate Bridge – was chosen for the project. Construction began in May of 1927 and was completed in 1929, months ahead of schedule. Composed of Art Deco and Gothic styling, the bridge’s total length is 7,490 feet. The structure is built mainly of steel (21,000 tons) and has a roadway that rises as high as 152 feet above the Detroit River. At the time of its construction, the Ambassador Bridge was the largest suspension bridge in the world, only to be surpassed two years later by the George Washington Bridge, spanning the Hudson River.

It took years and tons of political wrangling to get the bridge built. Austin started the ball rolling in 1924, and construction wasn’t started until 1927. Bower was too “humble” to name the then world’s longest suspension bridge after himself. Instead, he named it the Ambassador Bridge, as a symbol of friendship between the two countries. During the Great Depression Bowers put the bridge into a publicly traded company, the Detroit International Bridge Co, but the family kept a controlling stake until 1979.

Enter ‘Matty’ Moroun

Manuel “Matty” J. Moroun was born in June 1927 to Lebanese immigrant parents two weeks after the first shovelful of dirt was turned for the Ambassador Bridge. Ironically, the family’s home in Windsor was expropriated and demolished to make room for the bridge’s construction. Compensation from the Canadain government for the house allowed the Morouns to move to Detroit and open a gas station. That one gas station would eventually grow into Central Transport, a $1.6 billion shipping empire.

Detroit and Windsor always had a contentious relationship with Moroun, who secured a $30 billion loan in 1979 to take a controlling stake in the bridge after Warren Buffet managed to buy a 25 percent stake for himself. Moroun bought out Warren and every other investor, making the Detroit International Bridge Co the centerpiece of his empire and an assured source of income. He doubled toll rates for trucks and has nearly quadrupled rates for cars while ignoring basic maintenance, much to the annoyance of the Canadians. But even before the rate hikes, Moroun didn’t have the best relationship with the Canadian government. In only his second interview ever (a 2018 interview where his son Matthew Moroun helped moderate his father’s potentially incriminating comments) Moroun told the Detroit Free Press:

The Canadian government demanded a 50% stake. Moroun balked, taking the Canadians to court. The Canadians struck back, launching an investigation into Moroun, intimating he had ties to organized crime.

“I knew the Teamsters pretty well; I was close with Jimmy Hoffa, since he used to buy gas from my father’s station” Moroun recalls. “I knew the heavy Italian guys pretty well. I went to (grade) school with them in the Depression. They were all family to me. I was welcome with them wherever I went.”

“That’s enough, Dad,” his son interrupts from the corner of the office. “Let’s leave it there.”

Fast forward to 1992: After slogging through the courts for more than a decade, and with NAFTA set to become law, the Canadians capitulated, settling for nearly nothing except for an agreement that Moroun make improvements to the bridge, which his critics complain he inadequately did.

His reputation was somehow even worse here on the U.S. side of the bridge. Moroun spent the ‘90s buying up cheap riverfront properties on both sides of the border with the stated intention of building a second span. He most famously owned Detroit’s derelict reminder of its glorious past, Michigan Central Station. When his plans for a second bridge didn’t come to fruition he left hundreds of properties to rot, severely impacting the mostly Black communities surrounding them and aiding directly in Detroit’s long slow slide into a blight-addled shell of its former self—a problem that continues to this day.

The shame of Michigan Central Station’s degradation became a highly visible symbol of Mouron’s empire and there aren’t many Detroiters today who will utter his name with anything less than total derision. His reputation was such that Forbes magazine, which usually treats billionaires as heroes, once wrote a profile on Moroun which called him the ‘Troll under the bridge.’

A New Bridge Too Far

The Ambassador Bridge is currently staring down 100 years in service, and governments on both sides of the river agree that a new span running parallel to the old bridge is required. Until recent court cases were settled over the last decade, however, that’s where the agreements on a new bridge ended. Getting a new span built is just as politically complicated as it was when Austin and Bowers first dreamed up the Ambassador Bridge in 1924 and Matty Moroun was a major player in making the process into a complete dumpster fire.

Canada never let up on its criticism of the sub-par maintenance of the bridge. The Canadian approach is also owned by a private company, the Canadian Transit Company, which has called for a wholesale replacement since 2014, according to the Windsor Star.

The Canadian government has begun building a new span across the river dubbed the Gordie Howe Internation Bridge, Howe being a hockey hero on both sides of the river. This bridge won’t be a privately owned enterprise, however. It will be built by Canada, which has decided that maybe this stretch is just a little too important for an ornery old-school capitalist to control, and paid for using tolls from the new bridge.

Moroun had wanted to build and own a second span himself to be privately owned by his family’s companies, while Canada pushed for a crossing that involved the federal governments of both nations. The Metro Times has a good rundown:

For decades, Moroun fought both the U.S. and Canadian governments against the construction of a rival bridge, which he believed would hurt his income, by buying off politicians with campaign contributions and dragging his feet on completing his share of a public-private venture with the Michigan Department of Transportation — which eventually landed him in jail for one night for contempt charges.

In 2018, Moroun even appealed directly to President Donald Trump for help in stopping the rival bridge, airing a strange commercial on one of Trump’s favorite Fox News shows that seemed like it had an intended audience of just Trump.

“It is difficult to imagine a family more politically powerful than the Morouns,” Metro Times reported in 2012, when Moroun was jailed. “Single-handedly, they were able to buy off enough of the state Legislature to forestall approval of a publicly owned bridge that would threaten the virtual monopoly they now enjoy.”

Rep. Rashida Tlaib wrote about meeting Moroun in Metro Times, saying that when she asked him to stop treating her neighborhood like his playground and to apply for permits first, he dismissed her, saying, “I don’t come and tell you what to do in your backyard.” (Tlaib’s response: “But Mr. Moroun, it is my backyard.”)

Back in 2018, Matty and his son Matthew Moroun had arranged the permits to build a second private bridge, which Canada granted in 2017 on the condition that the company tears down the Ambassador. All of this was for naught, however. There has been no movement on a second privately owned bridge and the Gordie Howe is currently under construction. Having overcome a number of Maroun-initiated setbacks, it’s set to be completed in 2024—god willing and the costs don’t rise.

Maroun The Younger

With the death of Matty Maroun, the empire goes to his son, who is known for a more polished approach to civic engagement. From the Free Press, again in 2018:

Matthew, who, at 43, is more urbane and polished, charitable and well-dressed. He is a product of private schooling and an upbringing on the shores of Grosse Pointe.

Opting for compromise and negotiation over his father’s scorched-earth court battles and brass-knuckle PR campaigns, the younger Moroun has groomed Ottawa bureaucrats and legislators, boarded up and cleaned up the company’s vacant properties across the city of Detroit and even put windows in the decrepit Michigan Central Station.

It was Matthew who arranged the sale of Michigan Central Station to the Ford Motor Company, and it’s Matthew who may now be trying to unruffle some feathers ruffled by his father. But it’s unclear how much Matty’s death will impact the Maroun approach. Just last month the Morouns were back in court losing yet another fight against the Gordie Howe bridge. From The Freep:

The Michigan appeals court ruled in favor of the state Thursday in a challenge to a second bridge being built between Detroit and Canada.

Companies controlled by the Moroun family, owners of the Ambassador Bridge, sued over the condemnation of land to make room for the Gordie Howe International Bridge. They argued that the agreement with Canada is illegal because lawmakers barred the state from spending tax dollars on the project, among other claims.

“Canada assumed financial responsibility for the project, and any money spent by Michigan is reimbursed by Canada,” the appeals court said. “While some Michigan funds might be used momentarily, no Michigan funds are ultimately expended under the crossing agreement.”

Considering all the drama, legal problems, and headaches that have come from a privately owned international border crossing, a new publicly owned bridge is long, long overdue.

But even after that bridge is built, Matthew Moroun, now 45, will wield massive political influence and control an empire with expansive land holdings in Detroit and a rapidly deteriorating 7,490-foot international crossing at its center.