WINDSOR, Ont. — Confident, adamant, polite, and clearly on the offensive. That, in a nutshell, is Dan Stamper these days. The president of the Detroit International Bridge Co. (DIBC), and frontman for its billionaire owner Matty Moroun, says he’s got some records to set straight.
None too happy with how some media outlets — including this publication and its website TodaysTrucking.com — have covered the ongoing soap opera that is the Windsor-Detroit gateway, Stamper is now on an organized public relations drive. Admitting that both he and Ambassador Bridge officials haven’t done a very good job to date of communicating the company’s take on issues, he recently invited two of our editors to Detroit for an exclusive interview and tour of the beginning stages of the company’s bridge “enhancement project.” In fact, it’s the start of a new bridge.
Already under construction on the Windsor side is a new bridge-owned Customs plaza, which will eventually link the landings of the current bridge and the future six-lane cable-stayed span the company says it will build about 100 ft on the west side of the Ambassador.
On the U.S. side, the company has broken ground on a massive plaza expansion which will provide a direct connection to the second span interchange and I 75. Expected completion for the project is 2009.
The company is also ready to commence creating a “green” space adjacent to the new plaza on Indian Rd. But the City of Windsor has denied the company permits to tear down a long row of houses it owns on the east side of the street, many of them now boarded up. It’s just one of many ongoing battles between the bridge and the city, which Stamper suggests is deliberately trying to delay his company’s progress.
“The (city) is simply behaving in bad faith,” says Stamper, who calls Windsor City Council the DIBC’s “biggest competitor.”
Others would think that title would go to the people behind the Detroit River International Crossing (DRIC) study — a binational group of Canadian and American stakeholders and bureaucrats forging ahead with a project that would see a separate, publicly-controlled bridge built about one mile southwest of the Ambassador. Stamper, though, suggests that Windsor politicians, as well as officials in the other two levels of Canadian government, are the main driving forces behind DRIC.
“Essentially, anti-American ownership from a Canadian perspective is the issue here,” he says. “That’s the basis of DRIC.”
When asked about recent support for DRIC by the Big Three automakers and Chambers of Commerce on both sides of the border, Stamper downplayed the significance of their statements. “They’re not picking bridges … and they support our efforts as well. They just want something done,” he tells us. “They don’t care who builds it. If it was up to the Big Three, they’d have five bridges.”
Stamper refutes suggestions that the two sides are in a race to build a bridge, explaining that the Ambassador started securing property for its twinning project on both sides of the border in the early ’90s and has spent US$450 million in the process. If anything, he claims, DRIC is attempting to undermine his company’s plans, not the other way around. He vehemently denies DRIC’s analysis that the Ambassador twinning project would take 100 acres out of Windsor’s historic Sandwich neighborhood. (DRIC officially ruled out public support for the Ambassador’s enhancement plan two years ago before settling on its preferred option of a separate structure downriver).
“It’s bureaucratic rhetoric,” says Stamper. “The impact to Sandwich was used to incite the community and throw us off the (project).”
He insists that the company already has all the land it needs on the Canadian side and has no intention of venturing into Sandwich. That may be true, but whether the twin indirectly forces the city and province to build supporting infrastructure through the area is another matter.
Nonetheless, at this point all levels of government on this side of the river are publicly lending their support to DRIC, as are, for the first time, major auto manufacturers. Most recently, Ottawa pledged $400 million for a public-private partnership (P3) on a new crossing.
In the end, however, Stamper predicts all the momentum behind DRIC will fizzle out once his twin span is built. He points to a movement in the Michigan Senate to cut state funding for DRIC as an early example. The fact is, he can have his new bridge completed and operational three or four years ahead of the DRIC, which has yet to decide on the landing points for its bridge and couldn’t have it finished before 2013.
And if somehow there’s enough stomach left to go ahead with a new public bridge, he offers some fightin’ words for its future operators: “There’s no way they could compete with me on tolls. They’d have triple the toll (rates),” he says, adding that tolls would probably have to be taxpayer-subsidized for the new bridge to remain somewhat competitive.
Could Stamper see a day where the Ambassador is operating both bridges? Slightly ambiguous when asked, he doesn’t flat-out reject that hypothetical scenario — implausible as it may be — but does explain that his company did look at the areas of the proposed DRIC bridge landings as an option for its own project. They rejected the sites because of former salt mines beneath the surface, which Stamper says make construction unpredictable and therefore, non-economical. DRIC, for its part, is currently studying the possible effects of salt deposits on bedrock stability, but it believes the sites are still promising enough to keep considering them preferred locations.
Undoubtedly, the Ambassador’s most vocal opponents lie in Canada, but from Stamper’s point of view, that doesn’t mean various political factions across the American line don’t throw in their own roadblocks too. The Michigan division of the Federal Highway Administration has been a thorn in the company’s side by harshly criticizing DIBC’s environmental assessment for the twin span prepared for the U.S. Coast Guard.
More recently, and perhaps oddly, too few members of the Michigan Strategic Fund (MSF) showed up to vote on DIBC’s application for US$1 billion in tax-exempt bonds to help finance its new bridge, thus postponing the long-awaited decision to late July or August. But, as he seems to be in the face of other impediments, Stamper is unwavering.
“With or without the MSF,” he says, “we are moving forward with our plans for the Ambassador Bridge Enhancement Project.”
In our interview, Stamper also fended off criticism that the bridge company openly flaunts a U.S. federal rule requiring that hazmat trucks stay off the Ambassador. Local media reported last year how hazmat tankers were crossing the bridge with special permits written by the bridge company. Stamper claims, however, that the rule was “self-inflicted about 50 years ago” out of concern for the community. That’s disputable, although Stamper may be correct when he suggests that the federal National Hazardous Materials Route Registry in question is merely a guideline and not hard law.
According to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, each jurisdiction is responsible for designating a routing agency to oversee the standard. In Michigan, the state police department has jurisdiction over hazmat loads transported across a city street, but the department admits that responsibility for transport over a private bridge is up to the owner. Calls to an official with the state police for further clarification on the rule were not returned by press time.
In the end, Stamper is adamant that Moroun’s twinning project is the best medicine for some of the economic and transportation ailments currently afflicting both border cities. He points out that DIBC is the second largest property taxpayer in Windsor and in the top five in Detroit.
After a few hours with Stamper one gets the feeling he doesn’t really care what bureaucrats, politicians and other businesses think of his company or its plans. It’s the hearts and minds of citizens he’s now after. One thing’s for sure, though: no matter what’s said or done outside of DIBC, the Ambassador folks continue to press forward their way. Time will tell if that way pays off for the people of Windsor and Detroit too.
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