Project to finish Ambassador Bridge ramps likely will be taken over, judge says

BY MATT HELMS
DETROIT FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER

The long-delayed project to finish ramps connecting the Ambassador Bridge to rebuilt freeways nearby likely will have to be taken over by an insurer that guaranteed the work for the bridge company, a judge said Thursday.

Wayne County Circuit Judge Prentis Edwards said he may soon strip from the Detroit International Bridge Co. oversight of its portion of the $230-million Gateway Project on the city’s southwest side. Edwards said billionaire Manuel (Matty) Moroun’s bridge company probably cannot finish the work by a Jan. 10 deadline the judge imposed.

Dan Stamper, president of the Detroit International Bridge Co., talks with his lawyers Craig John, left, and Reginald Turner, before a hearing in Wayne County Circuit Court. / ANDRE J. JACKSON/Detroit Free Press

“This project was supposed to have been completed in 2008,” Edwards said during a hearing on the lack of progress on the project pitting the bridge company against the Michigan Department of Transportation.

Edwards told a lawyer for Safeco Insurance, through which the bridge company’s share of the work was insured, that the company should prepare to take over the project and devise within two weeks a plan to finish the job.

MDOT said it’s not uncommon for insurers that bond construction projects to take them over, but it happens more often because a contractor goes out of business.

Bridge Co. President Dan Stamper said recent work — including relocating toll booths and removal of one of several controversial gas pumps the state says were illegally built in the Ambassador Bridge plaza — shows progress.

It’s a claim MDOT disputes.

Detroit International Bridge Co. tries to show judge progress being made on Ambassador project

A lawyer for the Detroit International Bridge Co. tried to persuade a Wayne County judge Thursday that his client is making progress on finishing ramps and other parts of a project connecting the Ambassador Bridge to I-75 and I-96.

Lawyer Reginald Turner said the bridge company has moved toll booths for passenger cars and commercial trucks to meet the Michigan Department of Transportation’s demands.

The company took delivery recently of six bridge beams needed to finish a ramp at the interchange, he said. And it removed one of several lucrative gas pumps the state says the bridge company built on a section of the bridge plaza near Fort Street where MDOT says truck traffic is supposed to go.

“The bridge company has worked very diligently over the course of the last month to show its respect for this court’s ruling,” Turner said in opening remarks.

But Wayne County Circuit Judge Prentis Edwards warned that he doesn’t believe Manuel (Matty) Moroun’s bridge company can finish the work by a Jan. 10 deadline Edwards set, “given what we’ve been through and our experience in this case.”

Edwards said it’s likely that Safeco, an insurance company through which the bridge company had bonded its share of the work, will have to take over. He ordered the insurer to produce plans to finish the work that’s been in limbo since the state finished a 2008-09 overhaul of parts of I-75 and I-96. He set a hearing for Aug. 25.

The project aimed for a seamless connection between the bridge and freeways and to move truck traffic off nearby local streets.

Bridge company President Dan Stamper said outside court that the insurance company’s plans may end up closely paralleling plans the bridge company had, but he said the firm will comply with Edwards’ orders.

That also may mean removing at least part of an approach the company built for a second span of the Ambassador that the bridge company wants to build. Moroun’s organization is at war with the state and Canadian governments over a proposal to build a publicly owned bridge two miles to the south that would compete with the Ambassador.

“If we have to tear stuff down, we’ll do that,” Stamper said.

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 Gateway Project plans.

MDOT closed I-75 for nearly 17 months in 2008-09 to overhaul the freeways, but the ramps remain unfinished.

Assistant Attorney General Robert Mol said MDOT officials visited the bridge plaza Thursday and confirmed that 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. “They could have started a year and a half ago, and this project would be done.”