Judge doubts Morouns can meet deadline

Upgrade project not expected to be completed

By Dave Battagello, The Windsor Star and Star news services

DETROIT, Mich. – A Detroit judge said Thursday 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.

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.

Ambassador Bridge executives must be held in contempt of court for failing the past 17 months to demolish structures on its U.S. plaza and build new access roads, a Detroit judge was told Thursday, July 7, 2011. Photograph by: File photo, The Windsor Star

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.

The Michigan Department of Transportation had urged Edwards to hold bridge executives in contempt of court for their failure to demolish structures on the bridge’s U.S. plaza and build new access roads.

The company has had ample time to complete the work, said Assistant Attorney General Robert Mol, representing the Michigan Department of Transportation.

Lawyers for MDOT have asked Edwards to fine the company US$100,000 per day for failing to comply.

In February 2010, the judge ruled that the bridge should not have built toll booths and portions of its duty free shop on city property and must improve access roads as called for in agreements with MDOT under the $230-million Gateway project, which added new freeway connections to the Detroit plaza.

Mol said the bridge company has started to do some of the work in the last month — such as removing a couple of gas pumps — but it’s too little too late and penalties for being in contempt are needed to get the project done.

“We are here because of the continuous contempt by (the bridge company),” he said. “They are starting to comply, but they are just starting the process. Impose a fine and make a deadline so if they don’t proceed they continue to pay the fine until they comply with the court order.”

But a bridge company lawyer said there has been ongoing work on the Detroit plaza since the ruling by Edwards last year.

“You can’t impose a fine to get them to do something they are already doing,” said Reginald Turner.

“We have volumes and volumes, boxes and boxes of documents showing the work done on the project since (the court order). We are prepared to show in a graphic manner the construction completed on this project since the (court) ruling.”

Tom LaCross, an engineer for Hubbel, Roth and Clark hired by the bridge to oversee the Gateway project, produced 12 progress reports since the court order, the latest being two weeks ago.

The court-ordered work continues on schedule with about six months to go, he testified.

The demolition and construction work on the bridge plaza in Detroit has lagged because approvals, permits, field work, design and utility relocation all took time, LaCross said.

Bridge president Dan Stamper, who was in the courtroom Thursday, was jailed for several hours in January when Edwards previously found the bridge was in contempt of his order. He was released after the company’s lawyers were able to prove some of the work was being completed.

Stamper refused comment following the hearing.