Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Matty Moroun’s means to an end

The numbers don’t lie, but they can certainly be manipulated as a means to an end. That’s precisely what’s going on at the busiest U.S.-Canadian border bridge.

The background helps tell the story.

The state of Michigan along with the Canadian federal government and the local governments of Detroit and Windsor are gearing up to build a new border bridge. They say it will relieve congestion on the nearby Ambassador Bridge – the busiest crossing in North America.

Equally important to the story is that the Ambassador Bridge is privately owned by billionaire Matty Moroun, and he stands to lose customers and toll revenue if the proposed Detroit River International Crossing toll bridge is built nearby.

Moroun and his Ambassador Bridge Co. are attempting to downplay the need for a new public bridge downstream as they work on their own plan to twin the Ambassador and expand their service plazas.

The latest downplay comes in the form of a press release stating that commercial traffic is down on Moroun’s bridge.

These figures, which are public and verifiable, show that commercial truck traffic is indeed down 1 percent for the month of March compared with March 2010. But while the number itself is not a lie, the company is using this figure to mislead.

Here’s what they’re not telling you: Commercial traffic is actually up nearly 1.9 percent for the first three months of 2011 when compared with the first three months of 2010.

So yes, Mr. Moroun is correct that March traffic declined, but the broader picture is that truck counts have actually increased year-to-date compared to 2010.

Have we mentioned cars yet? Passenger vehicle traffic was up 6 percent using Moroun’s own March-to-March comparison, and 4.8 percent year-to-date. Again, these numbers are public and verifiable, so let’s move on.

To talk about the Ambassador Bridge and the proposed Detroit River International Crossing in a vacuum without including other border activity in the region would be a disservice.

Approximately 60 miles north and east of the Ambassador Bridge is the Blue Water Bridge linking Port Huron, MI, and Sarnia, Ontario. Truckers traveling Michigan-Ontario truck routes can generally choose one bridge or the other, so let’s take a gander at the Blue Water numbers.

Starting with the March-to-March comparison, we see that commercial truck traffic has declined a fraction of a percentage point. The year-to-date figure shows truck traffic on the Blue Water Bridge is down 1.3 percent. But nobody’s crying foul over there at Port Huron, because their plazas are small, crowded and border wait times can be lengthy.

To wrap this up in a nice little bow, truck traffic is down on both bridges in March, but up on the Ambassador for the year so far. Two factors to keep in mind: First, we’re coming off a bad winter, so numbers for the first quarter are still a bit short-sighted for the big picture. And second, the U.S. side of the Blue Water Bridge is undergoing a construction project on I-94/I-69. Perhaps that construction has sent more trucks to the Ambassador site, but we don’t have that kind of data available.

Lastly, we must also consider the pre-recession and post-recession numbers. When the economy took a tumble in 2009 – which included a major hit to the Detroit auto industry in the area – the border-crossing numbers took a nosedive to the tune of 20-25 percent.

But it looks like those numbers are back now, more or less, as 2010 and 2011 are looking more and more like 2007 and 2008.

At the present time, truckers can flip a coin between using the Ambassador Bridge or Blue Water Bridge, but there could soon be a third bridge in the area if it ever gets built. I’m not endorsing the DRIC or the toll revenue it will be built with, but truckers may welcome a bit of competition in the Michigan-Ontario trucking region as well as some faster service at the border.