Ambassador Bridge compliance on Gateway ramp project questioned

BY JOHN GALLAGHER
DETROIT FREE PRESS BUSINESS WRITER

More than 18 months after a judge ordered Ambassador Bridge owner Manuel (Matty) Moroun to rebuild his bridge approaches, attorneys were still sparring in court Thursday over whether Moroun’s bridge company was complying.

At a daylong hearing before Wayne County Circuit Judge Prentis Edwards, Dan Stamper, president of Moroun’s Detroit International Bridge Co., testified that he intended to comply with Edwards’ February 2010 order to rebuild the approaches. But he said that significant disagreement remained over what was required.

“We will build exactly what this court orders us to build,” Stamper testified.

The dispute stems from the $230-million Gateway project, a joint effort between Moroun’s bridge company and the Michigan Department of Transportation. Under a 2004 agreement, the project aimed at connecting the Ambassador Bridge directly to I-75 and I-96 through a series of new ramps that would finally get bridge truck traffic off local Detroit streets.

But MDOT contends that the bridge company violated the agreement by building a lucrative new duty-free complex where part of Gateway was supposed to go. That meant that thousands of trucks daily still have to use surface streets in Detroit to get to expressways.

Edwards ruled for MDOT in February 2010 and ordered the bridge company to rebuild the approaches, even if it meant ripping out part of the duty-free facility. Since then, MDOT contends that Moroun’s company has done little or nothing to comply, while the DIBC insists it is making all reasonable efforts.

Under questioning Thursday by Assistant Attorney General Robert Mol, representing MDOT, Stamper refused to accept Mol’s characterizations of the bridge company’s motives.

“If you want to sit in this chair, I’ll ask you the questions,” Stamper replied at one point.

That drew a retort from the judge, who admonished him, “Mr. Stamper, these questions are not that difficult. Please respond.”

Since his early 2010 order, Edwards has pushed repeatedly to get the bridge company to hasten its rebuilding, even jailing Stamper for a few hours last January. On Thursday, Edwards told attorneys that partial compliance with his order would not be enough. “If it’s not done, there are consequences,” Edwards said.

Under questioning by Mol, Stamper also disagreed with MDOT’s contention that Pier 19, the projecting elevated roadway that would become part of a new bridge alongside the Ambassador Bridge, needed to be removed to comply with Edwards’ order.

“DIBC does not believe Pier 19 is in conflict with anything,” Stamper said.

After several hours of testimony, Edwards adjourned the hearing for the day. Testimony is not expected to resume until early October because of conflicts in lawyers’ schedules.