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What's Behind This Billionaire Bridge Battle

Thursday, 1 Nov 2012 | 12:26 PM ET
Raymond Boyd | Michael Ochs Archives | Getty Images

It's hard to find any politician or business leader arguing against better infrastructure in America.

We hear constantly our crumbling roads, bridges, schools and energy grid. This was highlighted even more by Hurricane Sandy this week.

But at least one multi-millionaire has come out against bridge improvement.

The man is Manuel "Matty" Moroun. He owns the Ambassador Bridge, which connects Detroit and Windsor, Ontario and is the busiest commercial crossing in the United States. Ambassador handles more than 7,100 trucks a day at an average price of $15 per truck. The only privately owned border crossing in the United States, it collects more than $60 million in tolls each year. (Read more: Millionaire 'Munger Sandwich' Squeezes Jerry Brown)

Moroun and his related companies have reportedly spent more than $30 million to oppose a new government-funded bridge that would compete with the Ambassador. The new bridge, called the NITC (New International Trade Crossing), would be two miles from Ambassador and be funded by Canada and paid off with toll collections.

Moroun says the new bridge is unnecessary, is a waste of taxpayer money, and will be far more expensive than projected. He said he could add to his own bridge far more cheaply. He has spent his millions on a massive ad and telephone campaign to back Proposal 6, which would require statewide votes on tunnels and bridges to Canada.

Dan Stamper, president of Moroun's Detroit International Bridge Co., which owns the Ambassador Bridge, said that the focus on Moroun's spending is a red herring. "I wish people were as worried about spending taxpayer money as they are about (Moroun) spending his private money," Stamper said. "The problem is the project, not Manny's money. It's been a fatally flawed project from the beginning."

Supporters of the NITC say taxpayers will never be on the hook for the bridge, since Canada is basically lending the money for the project. (Read more: Affluent Plan to Spend Less If Obama Wins)

In an interview with the Detroit Free Press, Moroun's wife said: "They want to destroy our family business and [have] government take it over. My husband is battling two countries and two governments. Is this the end of the American dream?"

It's unclear whether Proposal 6 will pass or whether, if it does, it will succeed in blocking the new bridge. And Moroun can't be faulted for fighting off competition. That's what businesses do.

But his lobbying effort (which sets a new spending record in Michigan) is a stark example of how today's wealthy can use their fortunes to shape public policy – for better or worse.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Manuel Moroun, the owner of The Ambassador.

-By CNBC's Robert Frank
Follow Robert Frank on Twitter:
@robtfrank

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  • A reporter and editor, Robert Frank is a leading authority on the American wealthy for CNBC.