Hurdle cleared in effort to build Gordie Howe bridge

Eric D. Lawrence
Detroit Free Press

The Michigan Department of Transportation has cleared a hurdle as it moves to acquire property for construction of the Gordie Howe International Bridge.

Billionaire Manuel (Matty) Moroun’s companies have granted permission, after initially refusing, for MDOT to access property the Morouns control in southwest Detroit so the agency can survey and conduct other work.

MDOT had sought a court order to allow the agency access to property, which the Ambassador Bridge owner uses for a trucking terminal on West Jefferson Avenue in Detroit. The agency is acquiring property in Detroit’s Delray neighborhood for the new Canada-financed bridge between Detroit and Windsor and filed suit Wednesday in Wayne County Circuit Court, saying it needs access “immediately” to avoid delays in construction, which is projected to start in 2017.

But Michael Samhat, president of Moroun’s Crown Enterprises, explained that he had granted the permission in writing the day after MDOT’s attorney set a 24-hour deadline, but that a lawsuit was filed anyway. After reaching out to MDOT the next day, he said the suit was withdrawn.

“Our intent was not to fight or resist their entrance to the property. We understand it’s part of the process,” Samhat said. But “we need to have some details.”

Samhat referenced an aerial picture that MDOT provided of the Central Transport operation showing curving red lines through the property, presumably representing what MDOT believes it might need to acquire.

“It’s obvious to us it’s not them taking a sliver,” Samhat said, noting that if that area is eventually acquired “it would greatly impair the operation.”

As reported by the Free Press in July, MDOT needs to control up to 800 parcels in the southwest Detroit neighborhood to provide room for the approaches to the bridge and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection inspection plaza. The report said that “legal wrangling over the price of individual parcels could go on for years after residents and businesses are relocated and even after the Gordie Howe International Bridge is scheduled to open in 2020.”

The exchange between Samhat and MDOT played out in a series of back-and-forth letters since the beginning of October. Moroun’s companies own more than 20 parcels that MDOT wants to access, but only one appeared to be at issue.

In a letter Oct. 12, Samhat suggested, in denying MDOT’s access request, that it was looking out for its business and employees.

“We are sensitive about the disruption and employee concern that your inspection will cause with this parcel. This site is utilized by Central Transport and it is one of the larger employers in this Detroit neighborhood,” according to the letter, which also notes that it’s “premature to start the process toward condemnation when important decisions concerning the ability of the project to go forward are currently before the federal court in Washington, D.C.”

That letter followed a decision by U.S. District Judge Rosemary Collyer, who dismissed “virtually all of the remaining legal counts in the Morouns’ five-year-old lawsuit against federal and state officials” in their fight over the new bridge. Moroun’s Detroit International Bridge Co. had claimed an exclusive franchise to operate a bridge between Detroit and Canada without competition.

MDOT’s attorney, Mark Zausmer, said in his letter seeking access to the Moroun property that the agency needs to survey, take measurements and photographs, appraise the property and conduct noninvasive environmental inspection activities.

The MDOT lawsuit noted that Samhat was requesting “an assurance that their ‘business and employees will not be damaged in this condemnation process.’ ”

It might not be a surprise that MDOT turned to the courts to address its access request. Moroun has aggressively fought construction of the Gordie Howe bridge, which would be downstream of the Ambassador, at the same time he has been fighting, despite significant opposition in Canada, to build a second span for the Ambassador.

Originally posted by the Detroit Free Press

Open house scheduled for Gordie Howe bridge project

Dave Battagello, Windsor Star

Residents are being invited by the Windsor-Detroit Bridge Authority to attend a public open house on Tuesday, Nov. 17 to learn more about the Gordie Howe International Bridge project.

The information session will be held from 2 to 8 p.m. inside the clubhouse at the Ambassador Golf Club at 1025 Sprucewood Ave.

An overall project update will be on display with WDBA officials available to answer questions. Presentations will take place at 2:30 p.m., 5 p.m. and 7 p.m.

Those interested in the project will receive information on the current “early works” project, a $59-million contract that already has Amico Infrastructure in the middle of site preparation in Windsor— building a new four-kilometre perimeter access road, utility relocation and installing drainage on the 100-acre site in Brighton Beach.

The Howe bridge is scheduled to open in 2020.

A similar project update meeting will be held in Detroit by WDBA Nov. 18 (also from 2 to 8 p.m.) at Historic Fort Wayne at 6325 W. Jefferson Ave.

Originally posted by The Windsor Star

Is Moroun running out of legal road blocks?

Only 2 cases remain in more than dozen filed over new bridge to Canada

Crain’s Detroit Business
By Chad Halcom

A long trawl of litigation may be nearly over for Ambassador Bridge owner Manuel “Matty” Moroun and the Detroit International Bridge Co., while the courts’ attention drifts downriver soon, to the planned Gordie Howe International Bridge.

Of the dozen-plus lawsuits to crop up since 2009 involving Moroun, his bridge company, various government agencies and neighboring landowners, only two cases are still pending — and U.S. District Judge Rosemary Collyer dismissed most of one last week.

An appeal in the same lawsuit, still awaits oral arguments Oct. 19 at the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., and another 2013 lawsuit in Washington is still pending.

“This guy (Moroun) never gives up,” said Richard McLellan, owner of McLellan Law Offices PLLC in Lansing, who had consulted on a previous version of the international bridge agreement that floundered in the state Legislature a few years ago. “I think he definitely has the potential to create new law in this case. It’s just not necessarily to his advantage.”

Timothy Mullins, chairman of the government law section at Giarmarco, Mullins & Horton PC in Troy, also noted the bridge company was persistent but unlikely to prevail in the Washington court case. But then, having the stronger legal argument may not be the point.

“The company has spent an awful lot of money to delay the public bridge process,” he said. “But if you took the amount of money he’s spent (in court) and compare it with the amount the bridge makes, then probably every year he can delay things it’s still a profitable venture.”

Click here to read the full story.

The Star’s View: Beware of bridge owners bearing gifts

Star Editorials

A leopard that changes its spots? The owners of the Ambassador Bridge are suddenly getting all contrite and playing friendly — in a most out-of-character fashion — with one of the host cities of the vital trade span.

After years of litigation and bullheadedly pushing to get their way, the Morouns appear to now want peace with Detroit.

“People hate us,” bridge company spokesman Mickey Blashfield told the Detroit Free Press. Added bridge company president Matt Moroun: “I’ve got to change the reputation of my company and my family.”

The charm offensive comes as Detroit city council mulls a controversial agreement between Mayor Mike Duggan and the Moroun family over a key city property the bridge owners need for their proposed twin span into west Windsor.

Under the tentative deal, three acres of Riverside Park next to the bridge on the American side would be turned over to the Morouns in exchange for five acres of other nearby riverfront property, plus $3 million for park improvements.

Federal permits on the U.S. side for the twin span proposal have stalled because Matt’s father, Manuel “Matty” Moroun, for years, had been unable to acquire portions of the park he needs.

Securing rights to the park has been a stumbling block with the U.S. Coast Guard — the federal body in the U.S. assigned to grant Moroun final environmental approval for the project.

About five years ago, Matty Moroun had a large section of the park fenced off and then called it his own, even posting armed security. A community backlash put Riverside Park back in the city’s hands.

Detroit city council is divided on the deal — a formal vote has been repeatedly delayed and is scheduled again for Tuesday. The bridge company has cleaned up some of its Detroit properties and is paying off a pile of outstanding fines for code violations on dozens of holdings. Some Detroiters question the impact of a second span, but others love the idea of a long-neglected riverfront park in one of the city’s poorest areas getting some attention.

The charm offensive of the Morouns has yet to cross the Canadian border. Moroun is awaiting approval for the twin span from Transport Canada, which will soon make a recommendation to Ottawa.

The Morouns are Windsor’s biggest slum landlords, with more than 100 abandoned homes in Old Sandwich Towne.

The city is fiercely opposed to any expansion of the Ambassador Bridge operations, particularly the owner’s desire for an expanded footprint in West Windsor to accommodate a secondary inspection plaza.

Replacing the current, 1929-span would be acceptable, but a plaza expansion must be opposed with steely resolve. To all levels of Canadian government we say: Beware of bridge owners bearing gifts.

Originally posted by The Windsor Star

Detroit council wants a piece of future bridge proceeds

By Joe Guillen, Detroit Free Press

If the Moroun family builds a second Ambassador Bridge, the Detroit City Council wants to make sure the city has a chance to generate revenue from its traffic.

The council could vote as early as Tuesday on a much-debated land swap agreement with the Detroit International Bridge Company that would advance the Morouns’ plans for a twin span to the aging Ambassador Bridge.

Although approval would still be required from the state and federal governments in both the U.S. and Canada, the land swap would give the Morouns a 3-acre piece of land at Riverside Park in southwest Detroit needed for a twin span.

“If and when a bridge is constructed, the city needs to be able to participate in the upside,” Councilman Scott Benson said in an interview.

To that end, Benson proposed a mechanism to capture property taxes associated with a second Ambassador Bridge. The money would be used to offset air pollution, increased truck traffic and other negative impacts of a new bridge. The mechanism wouldn’t necessarily raise more money, but it would direct the property taxes to specific uses rather than going into the city’s general fund, Benson said.

The council’s planning and economic development committee also wants to set up a work group with the Bridge Company to figure out other ways the city could make money off another bridge. Benson said his idea for the city to get $1 off tolls paid by each car crossing the new bridge was rejected.

The council is expected to attach an addendum that incorporates Benson’s property tax capture and the work group to study a second span to the land swap deal Mayor Mike Duggan proposed in April.

A vote on the deal is on the agenda for Tuesday’s council meeting, but the vote could be pushed back a week if the addendum’s terms are not satisfactory.

Councilwoman Raquel Castaneda-Lopez, whose district includes the Ambassador Bridge, has a much longer list of proposed changes she wants made to the land swap deal.

Rather than transfer a piece of Riverside Park to the Bridge Company, Castaneda-Lopez suggests the city grant an easement for 100 years, with the city collecting 10% of revenue generated from a second Ambassador Bridge. She also wants the city to become part owner of a second bridge, similar to the public-private partnership that manages the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel. Furthermore, she wants the Bridge Company to enter into a legally binding community benefits agreement that includes requirements for training and hiring Detroiters, environmental mitigation and community investment.

Castaneda-Lopez said now is the time for the council to negotiate benefits from a second Ambassador Bridge.

“Everyone supports the park, the reopening of Riverside,” she said. “The conditions around a second span need to be incorporated now.”

For now, it appears Duggan’s office is leaving it to the City Council to prepare the city for a potential second Ambassador Bridge.

A list of 55 questions Castaneda-Lopez submitted to Duggan’s office about the Riverside Park land swap included nine questions about a second bridge. Alexis Wiley, Duggan’s chief of staff, answered every question the same way. She referred Castaneda-Lopez to the proposed work group, which has not been approved or set up yet.

Bridge Company officials were receptive to the property tax capture and work group, Benson said. A Bridge Company representative declined to comment Friday because the concepts had not been given to him in writing yet.

Councilwoman Mary Sheffield agreed the pending land swap deal with the Morouns needs to include some sweeteners for the city.

If the second span is built, that’s a significant revenue stream the bridge company could be receiving, Sheffield said. “How does the city benefit from that?” she said.

Under the proposal pending before the City Council, Detroit would give the Morouns about 3 acres at Riverside Park in exchange for nearly 5 acres of land next to the park that the bridge company owns. The swap would allow the city to expand Riverside Park and would give Moroun control over land needed to pursue a twin span of the Ambassador Bridge.

The Bridge Company also would pay the city up to $5 million for park improvements under the proposal. On top of that, the Morouns have agreed to install about 1,050 windows in the Michigan Central Station, a commitment Duggan values because it could help erode the train depot’s international reputation as a sign of Detroit’s decay.

Duggan and residents who support the deal say it is a unique opportunity to fix up the park and provide valuable recreational opportunities in southwest Detroit. Park improvements to be made starting this fall include new baseball and soccer fields on the northeastern part of the park, a new riverfront playscape, new benches, picnic tables and an improved waterfront promenade.

Sheffield said she is ready to support the land swap deal if it includes the addendum spelling out the work group and other provisions discussed with the Bridge Company earlier this week.

But Benson said he’s not sure. “I am not committing to anything,” he said.

Originally posted by the Detroit Free Press

A perfect tribute to extra-special star Gordie Howe

By Jerry Green
The Detroit News

This is the perfect fit. Who would have thought — an international bridge named for Gordie Howe?

Nothing more appropriate, because Gordie has had his own bridge for decades and was the primary cause that so many former NHL players, now senior citizens, have bridges of their own.

There were no records kept for the total number of teeth Gordie knocked out of rivals during his quarter century with the Red Wings and 32 years in major hockey total.

But Gordie has to be the all-time record holder. Back then, he was the foremost practitioner in all of professional sports for the subtle use of elbows and butt ends of hockey sticks.

Most of the time, the targets were the other guys’ mouths.

Congratulations to the politicos of two countries for coming together on this bridge deal. Rarely is there such a sharing of acute imagination. Seldom is there such a friendly pact between nations as was reached in the naming of the eventual Gordie Howe International Bridge.

Oh, I got it now. This bridge is going be built spanning the Detroit River – a new connection between Detroit and Windsor – and not as part of some unfortunate Russian hockey player’s mouth.

Naming a bridge for Gordie is a great, great honor for a former professional athlete.

It is an honor that those of us of an octogenarian bent cheer.

Click here to read the full story.