Minor Thoughts from me to you

The Danger of Private Bridges

It turns out that a privately owned bridge is responsible for "carrying one-third of all road trade -- or more than $122 billion in goods a year" between the U.S. and Canada.

In a remarkable arrangement for a crossing so major, Manuel J. Moroun, a reclusive billionaire from Detroit's suburbs who oversees a trucking empire, owns the bridge, one of only two privately owned bridges along the entire northern border of the United States and by far the most economically significant privately owned bridge in the nation.

Now, with so much commerce depending on a single structure, people have begun to wonder what would happen if a terrorist were to attack it or if the Ambassador Bridge, approaching 80 years old, were to fail.

And so a race is on to build a new $1 billion crossing here.

Of course, the local politicians want it to be a publicly owned bridge this time. They don't trust private ownership, of course.

Supporters of a publicly owned span here say it is the only wise plan, the only one that offers needed public oversight and regulation. They have deep concerns, they say, about allowing a single man to continue his decades-long reign over such a vital connector of nations.

"This man is making billions of dollars on that bridge." said Raymond E. Basham, a Michigan state senator and a Democrat, who said that only a public bridge could ensure the structural inspections and domestic security needed. "When it comes to dollars and cents, there is every incentive for him not to tell us if something is wrong. We have an obligation for the safety of people."

Really, I don't know how to respond to Senator Brasham. The flaws in his argument are so gapingly huge that I feel ludicrous having to actually point them out. But somebody's gotta do it and it might as well be me.

First of all, Mr. Moroun has at least 100 million reasons a year to keep his bridge well maintained and protected. I'd say that's one humdinger of an incentive right there. If there are any fears about the bridge's safety, that traffic could all disappear -- it's in his best interests to make sure that no one ever has any reason to fear for the bridge's safety. That, naturally, means more disclosure -- not less.

Here's how the Detroit International Bridge Company has protected their investment.

... the bridge company had hired private security guards to watch the bridge in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

Mr. Stamper [the president of the company] also said that the Ambassador Bridge received structural inspections every year from private firms and that the results of those inspections were made available to Michigan and Canadian transportation authorities, though not to the public.

Secondly, it's preposterous to suggest that the government will be on top of maintenance and repairs. The most glaring example is the collapse of the I-35 bridge in Minnesota, two months ago. In the aftermath of that disaster, all 50 states suddenly realized that they were way behind on their own bridge maintenance. The levies that collapsed in New Orleans? Also publicly owned and maintained.

I'd far rather trust my life to private ownership and maintenance than public ownership and maintenance. A private owner stands to lose millions of dollars in business if his infrastructure collapses. A politician who underfunds maintenance earns an opportunity to blame someone else for skimping on safety and a chance get on TV, by promising to do better. That's definitely not an incentive for pro-active safety.

This entry was tagged. Private Roads