Judge doubts Moroun will meet bridge deadline, may have insurance firm take over

BY MATT HELMS
DETROIT FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER

A judge said today that the long-delayed project to upgrade ramps between the Ambassador Bridge and nearby freeways in Detroit is not likely to be finished by his appointed Jan. 10 deadline and may have to be taken over by the insurance company that bonded the company’s part of the work.

Truck traffic makes its way across the Ambassador Bridge. Earlier this year, a study estimated that delays at the Ambassador Bridge have added $800 to the cost of every new vehicle produced in the U.S. and Canada. / 2010 photo by PATRICIA BECK/Detroit Free Press

Noting the $230-million Gateway Project to overhaul I-75 and I-96 and build new ramps to the bridge was supposed to be done in 2008, Wayne County Circuit Judge Prentis Edwards said he doubts that billionaire Manuel (Matty) Moroun’s Detroit International Bridge Co. could meet his deadline.

It’s been nearly and year and a half since Edwards ordered the bridge company to comply with agreements with the Michigan Department of Transportation to complete the ramps.

“I’m not at all sure, given what we’ve been through, our experience in this case,” that the bridge company can get the project done by January, Edwards said.

Edwards told a lawyer for Safeco, an insurance company through which the bridge company had bonded its share of the work, that he believes the insurer will have to take a greater role in overseeing the project. Edwards told the insurance company he wanted it to devise within two weeks a plan to finish the work.

Lawyers from Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette’s office, representing MDOT, declined comment after the hearing.

Edwards had indicated previously he would decide penalties against the bridge company today, but he did not rule on MDOT’s request to fine the company $100,000 a day. He also did not order bridge company president Dan Stamper back to jail; Edwards briefly jailed Stamper earlier this year for being in contempt of court.

“He could have put me back in jail or held the company in contempt, but he didn’t do that,” Stamper said outside court.

MDOT’s metro Detroit region engineer, Tony Kratofil, said after the hearing that the state was pleased with Edwards’ decision.

“The intent is to speed up the work and stop all the stalling,” Kratofil said.

Kratofil said it’s not uncommon for insurance companies that guarantee construction work to take over projects, though it happens more often when contractors go out of business.

The bridge company had attempted during testimony today to show that it’s making significant progress on the project, including moving toll booths the state wanted relocated and beginning to remove controversial gas pumps the state said were illegally built.

The gas pumps have been doubly contentious: They are duty free, meaning more profit for the bridge company, and MDOT says they were built in violation of the Gateway Project’s plans for traffic flow in the plaza. The Free Press reported in April that the bridge company can save 60 cents or more per gallon without having to pay fuel and sales taxes, but the bridge company said its profit was nowhere near that level.

MDOT closed I-75 for nearly 17 months in 2008-2009 to overhaul the freeways, but the ramps have yet to be completed. The Gateway Project’s aim was a seamless connection that moved truck traffic off nearby local streets.

Assistant Attorney General Robert Mol, representing MDOT, said state officials visited the bridge plaza this morning and confirmed one of the gas pumps had been removed and crews were working to take down canopies above the pumps. But he said customers were still pumping gas.

Mol said in court that the work showed only that the bridge company is trying to play catch-up under the pressure of Edwards’ ruling and remains in contempt of his order.

“We have been waiting for progress for a year and a half,” Mol said in opening remarks. “They could have started a year and a half ago and this project would be done.”

Turner said progress on relocating the gas pumps within the plaza, the delivery of six beams needed for an unfinished ramp bridge, moving the toll booths and other work at the site shows “the bridge company has worked very diligently over the course of the last month to show its respect for this court’s ruling.”

MDOT contends the bridge company unilaterally changed designs of the project to accommodate a duty free store, the lucrative gas pumps and a pier for a second span of the Ambassador that the bridge company wants to build.

The Moroun organization has waged war against a competing public bridge proposed by the Michigan and Canadian governments about two miles downriver from the Ambassador. The public bridge has broad support among former Michigan governors and the state’s corporate leaders but has run into opposition among Republican lawmakers in Lansing.

Turner said the bridge company disputes MDOT’s contentions and says changes in design on a project on this scale are not uncommon.