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Old or New? Bridges Split Michigan GOP

Mary Knox Merrill/Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images
The busy Ambassador Bridge, connecting Detroit to Canada, is owned by billionaire Manuel “Matty” Moroun, who has donated thousands to Members such as Rep. Candice Miller who oppose the construction of another proposed bridge between the two cities, one of the busiest trade crossings in North America.

Rep. Candice Miller is picky about bridges.

The Michigan Republican fought vigorously for federal funds for bridges in Port Huron, Mich., including attending a bridge opening in January 2010 and praising Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in February 2010 for sending $30 million to her state to replace a bridge built in the 1960s.

But for another proposed bridge, she has raised concerns.

That proposal, a second bridge connecting Detroit and Windsor, Ontario, that is a priority for Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, “would hurt our established and existing crossings,” Miller wrote in an April 2008 letter.

The proposed bridge, the New International Trade Crossing, is, unlike the bridges Miller has supported, outside her district.

But it would also compete with the Ambassador Bridge — one of two privately owned international bridges in America — whose owner, the colorful billionaire Manuel “Matty” Moroun, has donated to Miller’s campaign.

According to a report from Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, Miller has received $24,000 in campaign donations from a network of donors connected to Moroun.

In his campaign against the rival bridge, Moroun has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to federal candidates, aired television commercials, spent a night in jail after misusing funds from a state construction project and even gained the support of tea party groups.

Supporters of the NITC have marveled at the durability of the opposition, which to them appears entirely the work of a self-interested owner who stands to lose toll money and is standing in the way of progress.

The CREW report highlights how the Moroun network’s donations have spiked at key moments in the debate and risen from $56,000 in the 2004 election cycle, in which the NITC was first proposed, to $639,000 in the 2010 cycle.

“It shows that lawmakers can be made to be much more sympathetic on an issue when they’re receiving campaign donations,” said Melanie Sloan, CREW’s president. It’s “impossible” to understand the opposition without the donations playing a key role, she added.

Moroun purchased the Ambassador Bridge, which was completed in 1929, in the 1970s for about $30 million. The bridge handles about 30 percent of trade between the U.S. and Canada and brought in $60 million in tolls in 2009.

It is “outdated and overwhelmed with traffic, leading to congestion and travel delays,” the CREW report claims.

In 2004, the Michigan Department of Transportation hired Moroun’s company to improve the roads leading to the Ambassador Bridge. The project, which was supposed to be finished by 2008, led to disagreements between state officials and Moroun.

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