DETROIT — Gregg Ward took a day off from his job running a truck ferry across the Detroit River last week to take his daughter Emily to court, so they could see what happened to Matty Moroun.
He is the 84-year-old man who owns the Ambassador Bridge, the only one across the Detroit River. That aged bridge is the only way there now is for more than $1 billion dollars a week of cargo to easily move between the United States and Canada.
Moroun has been fighting hard -- and some say, dirty -- spending millions to get the Michigan Legislature to prevent a second, internationally owned bridge from being built.
Gov. Rick Snyder, the auto industry, and every chamber of commerce in the state want a new bridge. Ward and his father, John, aren't neutral in this battle either. Their livelihood could be at stake. If they were concerned only with their own pocketbooks, they would almost certainly be supporting Moroun.
That's because they make a living operating something called the Detroit-Windsor Truck Ferry. The federal government doesn't allow vehicles carrying certain categories of "hazmat" to cross the 1929-era Ambassador Bridge. That includes flammable or corrosive cargos, or anything that is explosive or radioactive.
Nor can those things -- or any heavy freight -- be moved through the Detroit-Windsor tunnel.
So the Wards' ferry transports trucks with hazmat, moving on average 50 or so trucks a day, charging $115 a truck. True, the trucks could drive to Port Huron and cross there; the Blue Water Bridge is safe for such kinds of potentially dangerous materials.
However, that's not cost-efficient. The time, tolls and gas cost more than the ferry service. So the Wards make a modest living.
But if the New International Trade Crossing gets built, it might put them out of business, since any new bridge more than likely will be certified safe for hazardous materials as well.
Yet Gregg Ward has fought for years for a new bridge. He thinks the idea that a single man being allowed to control the most economically important border crossing between the U.S. and Canada is crazy -- and that something must be done to end Moroun's stranglehold on moving freight across the Detroit River.
He knows that the Ambassador Bridge is nearing the end of its useful life, and that if something happened to it, Michigan and Ontario could well be thrown into something like a major depression.
"I'm making this fight for her generation," the 50-year-old ferry operator said, indicating his daughter.
That fight has taken a toll on Ward, a newly divorced father of two kids he adores, including a son who is severely autistic.
For Emily, a high school junior who is thinking about being a journalist, spending a morning in Wayne County Circuit Court was well worth missing a day of school. To her delight and her father's stunned disbelief, Moroun became the only billionaire in history to spend a night in Detroit's raucous and crowded county jail.
Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Prentis Edwards sent him there, but not for anything connected with his attempts to stop a new bridge. Two years ago, the judge ordered Moroun to live up to an agreement his company had signed in 2004 with the Michigan Department of Transportation, known as MDOT.
This was to build a development to ease congestion around the Ambassador Bridge, known as the Gateway project. There was no mystery about what was supposed to happen. But MDOT ended up suing Moroun for ignoring the agreement.
Two years ago, the judge found that the bridge owner closed a street that was supposed to stay open, and improperly installed some new gas pumps and a duty-free shop.
Traffic was re-routed by these, so drivers would stop and spend money, with the profits going to Moroun. The Gateway plan also indicated the Ambassador Bridge Co. should have built an elevated two-lane ramp for heavy trucks heading to the bridge. But he never did this and trucks are still backed up on a nearby street.
Back in February 2010, Judge Edwards ordered Moroun's company, the Detroit International Bridge Co., to tear down the improper construction and build the project as agreed. Nothing happened. A year ago, he repeated the order, and briefly jailed Dan Stamper, who runs the company for Moroun.
Nothing happened again, and this year, an exasperated judge ordered both men jailed till the work was completed.
The pair only spent one night in a cell before they were released by the Michigan Court of Appeals, but they could be returning to jail, depending on the outcome of a Feb. 2 hearing.
Gregg Ward wasn't pleased they let Moroun and his sidekick out so quickly, or that they were allowed to have food brought in from a fancy club.
But he is optimistic about what happens next.
"I think this really weakens Moroun's credibility," he said. "He's shown an inability to cooperate with the government, and inability to follow rules."
He notes that in an attempt to avoid jail, Moroun claimed not to really own the bridge. That was a blunder, Ward said.
"He claimed that he didn't really own the bridge. Well, then who does? This should enable the court to question him about that. The secrets of the Moroun empire may began to unravel."
Whatever happens, Ward plans to be in court Feb. 2, and if she is allowed to again miss school, Emily will be too. What was really fascinating, she said, was "to see how justice would prevail."
Jack Lessenberry's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.