Cities

Once We Were Builders

A bridge in limbo symbolizes our modern aversion to ambitious engineering projects

Illustration by Sandi Falconer

Illustration by Sandi Falconer

Several storeys above street level, in the middle of a residential neighbourhood in Windsor, Ontario, looms an unfinished highway ramp awaiting connection to a bridge to Detroit that isn’t there. A row of never-used customs booths lies in the distance, along with signs directing non-existent traffic from the United States through concrete stanchions.

This ramp belongs to Manuel “Matty” Moroun, the reclusive eighty-nine-year-old American owner of the eighty-seven-year-old Ambassador Bridge—Canada’s busiest land border point. To make room for a second bridge, which would ease congestion and add to his operating profits, Moroun has been buying up blocks of buildings in the Windsor neighbourhood known as Old Sandwich Town. Nine years ago, in hopes of a speedy approval process, he built this toll-bridge ramp running parallel to Indian Road, a tree-lined street in the shadow of his existing bridge. But the project has stalled amid a complex legal battle that has gone all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada.

Beneath the ramp, at street level, Indian Road is a boarded-up slum. Moroun seems to have left it purposefully bleak, perhaps as a means of embarrassing Windsor into issuing demolition permits. But if that was his plan, it hasn’t worked. “We’re trying to ensure Mr. Moroun follows the law,” says Windsor mayor Drew Dilkens. “He has chosen to leave his properties vacant and not take care of them. And that blight is affecting the entire neighbourhood.”

“Indian Road used to be such a nice street,” says Bette Wigle, who’s lived in Windsor for almost nine decades. (There’s a Wigle Avenue just a few blocks away.) “Now it’s so derelict it almost looks like Detroit.” Her own immaculately kept house a few blocks away feels like a rampart against the forces of decay. But she’s fighting a losing battle. “We’ve never had a good experience dealing with Matty Moroun,” she says, summing up the sentiments of most Windsorites. “He doesn’t seem to have any moral sense of what he’s done to the community.”

Moroun, the son of a Lebanese-American gas-station manager, is a controversial and widely criticized figure on both sides of the border. (Last year, a US judge dismissed a Moroun lawsuit aimed at stopping construction of a public project that would compete with the Ambassador Bridge—a lawsuit that Moroun’s detractors describe as a cynical attempt to protect his existing monopoly.) But before he’s dismissed as a mere profiteer, it’s important to remember how crucial Moroun’s style of entrepreneurship has been to Canada. Not so long ago, a magnate of his means and determination would have been lauded as a nation builder—not an enemy of the public good, but a real Canadian hero.

This is a huge country. Until the late twentieth century, Canada’s economic history was defined by the need to tame its vast tracts of land through trade and transportation networks—canals, railways, and highways. Without our own infrastructure, it would have been only a matter of time before we were absorbed into the United States.

“Canada has always been attracted out of necessity to big projects that fit the size and scale of the country,” says Doug Owram, history professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia and co-author of the popular university textbook A History of the Canadian Economy. “The federal government first turns to the private sector, but it isn’t interested. And it thus becomes a state operation, either directly owned or heavily subsidized. It’s a Canadian tradition.”

In the nineteenth century, dozens of companies competed for the opportunity to take part in creating the US railroad network. But in Canada, with its small, scattered population, investors were far more cautious. In the absence of compelling economic logic, the process of building Canada became a political project by default. In effect, this is a nation constructed ahead of existing demand, at taxpayers’ expense.

Ontario’s Welland Canal, completed in 1829, was designed to prevent New York State’s highly profitable Erie Canal from dominating the transport of Canadian agricultural goods. The canal was a success as a domestic trade artery, but it failed miserably as a profit-making venture and soon fell under public control.

Despite his vaunted skills of persuasion, Sir John A. Macdonald was never able to convince backers of the Montreal–Toronto Grand Trunk Railway to extend their iron trail to the Pacific. The idea of establishing an all-Canadian route through the largely empty Prairies was not particularly appealing to investors. It took another decade and a half of cajoling—plus $25 million in cash, 25 million acres of land, and a huge political scandal—before Macdonald was able to track down venture capitalists willing to underwrite his national dream.

The St. Lawrence Seaway initially operated as a private-sector venture before it, too, ultimately fell into the lap of the federal government. Even the Trans-Canada Highway was originally planned as a fifty-fifty cost-shared deal between the federal government and the provinces. But the premiers lost their enthusiasm for the project, and, by 1967, Ottawa had paid two-thirds of the $1.4 billion price tag.

In short, Canada was built on huge engineering projects—some of which (as with hydro development) required the flooding of large swathes of land and the displacement of established communities. And while hope sprang eternal that private investors would shoulder the financial burden, the heavy lifting generally fell to a reluctant federal government. Regardless of who was paying, however, nothing stood in the way of building Canada—until the last decades of the twentieth century.

The major turning point came in 1977. Conceived in the same majestic style as its predecessors, the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline was to be a massive system of refrigerated gas pipelines running from Alaska and the Beaufort Sea to northern Alberta, carrying US and Canadian natural gas south. An oil pipeline would follow later. Both would open the North to economic growth in the same way the West had been opened by rail. It was to be, by one official description, “the greatest construction project, in terms of capital expenditures, ever contemplated by private enterprise.”

But times had changed. Canada’s early can-do spirit had been replaced by not-in-my-backyard parochialism. Justice Thomas Berger headed a federal inquiry into the pipeline and sought out the opinions of environmentalists, Indigenous communities, and local constituencies. After three years of study, he ultimately recommended against the pipeline’s immediate construction, citing the damage it would cause to the northern way of life and the environment. “This was the first big project that was stopped for political rather than economic reasons,” says Owram. “It fundamentally changed how we do development in Canada. Now negative sentiment can essentially veto anything.”

Forty years after the Mackenzie Valley project was proposed, pipelines remain the object of deep public suspicion—notwithstanding their vastly improved safety record. The three major pipeline proposals currently on the table in Canada—Energy East, Northern Gateway, and the Trans Mountain expansion—are all mired in environmental studies and hamstrung by consultative obligations. Mayors vow to prevent pipelines from crossing their territory. Premiers hold them hostage to dilatory demands. Ottawa grandstands as nature’s saviour. (Witness Justin Trudeau’s declaration that “the Great Bear Rainforest is no place for a crude oil pipeline.”) And courts invent new legal obstacles to throw in every developer’s way.

This obstructionism threatens to bring large-scale Canadian economic development to a halt. As unpopular as pipelines may be in some sectors, they remain a critical component of our infrastructure—as important today as railways and canals were in the nineteenth century. The lack of pipeline infrastructure means Canadian producers take a haircut of nearly $20 on every barrel of oil they sell. A 2012 study from the Canadian Energy Research Institute projected that the domestic economy will lose out on $1.3 trillion in income and $276 billion in taxes between 2011 and 2035.

It’s a national economic emergency, in other words. And yet the clear solution doesn’t require any taxpayer involvement at all: the pipeline industry plans to spend $68 billion of its own money to get our oil to market. If only Canadian politicians would let them.

In Windsor, meanwhile, Moroun has offered to build the country a new bridge at his own expense. While Indian Road crumbles, Ottawa is planning to construct its own competing (publicly financed) $4 billion Gordie Howe International Bridge just a few kilometres away. In the past, politicians pleaded with investors to take on economically challenging projects in the name of nation building. Today, they fight them in court. Consider it the new Canadian tradition, memorialized for all to see in Matty Moroun’s lonely ramp to nowhere.

This appeared in the October 2016 issue.

Peter Shawn Taylor is editor-at-large of Maclean's magazine.

Sandi Falconer (sandifalconer.com) has appeared in Reader's Digest and Cottage Life. She runs Tough Luck, a stationary company.

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