Next up for bridge plan: Buying land

U.S. permit clears way, but Ambassador owner holds key properties

By Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Detroit — Construction of a long-sought new Detroit River crossing took a major step forward Friday with the signing of a presidential permit clearing the way for Canada and Michigan to assemble land for the $2.1 billion six-lane bridge.

The U.S. State Department announced approval of the bridge on Friday. It ends a lengthy review conducted in part to ensure the New International Trade Crossing can survive legal challenges from Ambassador Bridge owner Manuel “Matty” Moroun, who has spent millions of dollars trying to block the project for nearly a decade.

“This is huge,” Gov. Rick Snyder said Friday afternoon in announcing the permit. “It’s more than a bridge to me. It’s about jobs and our future in this state.”

Canadian leaders view it as their country’s biggest transportation project and have agreed to front Michigan’s $550 million share of the cost, which will be repaid through toll revenue. The Canadians also have pledged to reimburse Michigan taxpayers for any expenses the state Department of Transportation incurs in connecting the new bridge to Interstate 75 through a new international plaza in southwest Detroit.

But the Snyder administration and Canadian government still will have to deal with an old nemesis as they try to finish assembling land in Detroit for the project. One of Moroun’s companies owns a handful of parcels in the area now targeted for inclusion in the footprint required for the bridge and plaza.

Much of the vacant land in the area is already owned by the city. But Moroun has bought a hodgepodge of property across southwest Detroit in the area where different bridge proposals were planned, including a few between Jefferson and Fort and Green and Campbell that will be needed for the new bridge and highway interchange.

Legal challenges continue

In an interview Friday, Snyder said the state Department of Transportation will treat Moroun like any other landowner as the agency assembles land on behalf of a new international authority that will own and operate the bridge.

“There won’t be any change in process for what’s owned by the Morouns versus any other landholder,” Snyder said.

Snyder declined to say whether MDOT would have to seize Moroun’s land through eminent domain, where the state takes property but still compensates the owner for its value. The seizure process is legal for public uses such as roads and bridges.

“I’m not going to speculate on that, that’s their choice,” Snyder said. “Hopefully they’ll make what they consider the appropriate decision. … Because I’ve never tried to fight with them.”

A spokesman for Moroun’s Detroit International Bridge Company did not return calls Friday seeking comment.

The Morouns do not own land on the Canadian side that would be required for the new bridge, said Roy Norton, the Canadian consulate general to Detroit.

Moroun’s company has a pending federal lawsuit seeking to stop the bridge, claiming the Ambassador Bridge has an exclusive franchise to operate a lucrative Detroit-to-Windsor bridge that dates to a nine-decade-old act of Congress and the Canadian Parliament.

State Rep. Fred Durhal, D-Detroit, recently sued Snyder, challenging the governor’s legal authority to enter into an agreement with Canada without the state Legislature’s approval. After legislation authorizing a new bridge failed to get out of a Senate committee in 2011, Snyder bypassed the Legislature and signed a deal with Canadian officials last June that calls for Canada to finance the bridge.

Construction in 2015?

With the presidential permit in hand, Snyder said construction could begin as early as 2015, depending on legal challenges. The crossing may open for traffic by 2020, he said. The project is expected to create 12,000 direct construction jobs and as many as 31,000 indirect jobs.

“A lot of people are looking forward to that day when they’re going to step on or drive on that new crossing … most likely it will be after I’m finished in office,” Snyder said.

Scott Brines, 41, who lives in the Delray community, said Friday’s announcement brought a “sigh of relief” in the community that wants green space buffers and environmental protections from the new bridge complex.

“More than a buffer, we need to see a real dent in the air quality,” said Brines, president of the Southwest Detroit Community Benefits Coalition. “This is the opportunity this community has waited for a very long time.”

Landowners want to be compensated fairly for their property if it falls in the path of the bridge and plaza, Brines said.

“I’m not so sure how fair it will be, but they’ll have to be compensated,” said attorney Alan Ackerman, who represents 20 property owners in Delray. “The fact is if the government really needs it and it’s a public use, the government’s going to get it.”

Tim Boik, owner of West Detroit Parts, an auto parts store on West Fort Street, said he has “no problem” with moving and hopes Moroun and other landowners will not drag out the project any longer.

“He’s just delaying something that’s actually going to happen,” Boik said. “Everybody’s excited because the city’s been dying off for years, and it’s going to bring some new life into it.”