Feds asks judge to dismiss lawsuit by Ambassador Bridge owners

Washington — The Obama administration on Tuesday asked a federal judge in Washington to throw out a three-year-old lawsuit by the owners of the Ambassador Bridge that seeks to compel the Coast Guard to grant it a permit to build a second bridge and block a new government-owned Detroit River crossing.

But the court battle over a new Detroit River crossing isn’t likely to be resolved until at least early 2014, a court scheduling order shows. The Ambasasador Bridge’s owners filed a new version of their lawsuit in late May asking a federal court to also block a new government owned crossing.

U.S. District Judge Rosemary M. Collyer gave the Justice Department until Aug. 30 to respond to the latest version of the suit. She gave both sides a series of deadlines to file motions, but won’t decide whether to let the suit go forward until after Dec. 20.

In April, the U.S. State Department announced approval of the $2.1 billion six-lane bridge, ending a lengthy review of the New International Trade Crossing in an effort to survive legal challenges from Ambassador Bridge owner Manuel “Matty” Moroun. He has spent millions of dollars trying to block the project for nearly a decade.

Moroun’s Detroit International Bridge Co. first filed suit in 2010 in U.S. District Court in Washington seeking to block a new crossing. Late last month, the company filed an amended 116-page complaint naming Secretary of State John Kerry, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, the Federal Highway Administration, U.S. Coast Guard and the Canadian and U.S. governments.

Since July 2004, DIBC has sought a navigation permit from the Coast Guard, necessary to build a new crossing.

The bridge owners argue “that the Coast Guard regulations should not apply to it because if the Coast Guard complies with its regulation (as it must), that allegedly will lead to DIBC having to pay exorbitant prices for the property rights necessary to build the bridge it has designed,” said the 74-page court filing signed by Brian Collins, a Justice Department attorney. “Without a hint of irony, DIBC portrays itself as a helpless victim being squeezed to overpay for property rights by an agency that has the temerity to try and fairly apply its regulations.”

The court filing raises a number of hurdles to the Ambassador Bridge owners building a second span. It cites the fact that a significant part of Detroit’s Riverside Park would be needed for a new bridge — but that since the land was obtained through a National Park Service grant, it would require both the state and federal government to approve the sale of park land.

The Coast Guard argues that since the owners haven’t acquired the land necessary, they can’t issue a final decision on the permit, saying it is incomplete. “If an applicant did not have to demonstrate that it had the right to build in a specific location, it could simply seek a bridge permit on the hope that it might be able one day to get the property rights necessary to build the bridge,” the government said. “It would force the agency into reviewing purely hypothetical plans for hypothetical bridges.”

The suit asks Collyer to block the crossing, arguing it seeks to “usurp” the Ambassador Bridge’s “ability to maintain their franchise by building a new span” and violates the terms of a 1921 agreement creating the privately owned Ambassador Bridge, which carries more than one quarter of all U.S.-Canadian commercial traffic. The company argued the agreement’s “right to repair, replace and enlarge” the Ambassador Bridge means the governments should allow the Ambassador Bridge company to build a second span, but it has been blocked for more than a decade.

The Ambassador Bridge has been in operation since 1929. Forbes magazine said the bridge takes in $60 million in tolls annually and $15 million in gas and duty-free sales.

Moroun’s revised legal challenge also argues Congress must approve the bridge and the crossing violates Michigan law, citing four statutes enacted by the state Legislature since 2012. His suit says the company has spent hundreds of millions of dollars upgrading and improving the Ambassador Bridge. The U.S and Canadian governments will file formal responses in the coming months before a hearing is held on the suit.

Moroun’s committee spent more than $33 million in a failed attempt to convince Michigan voters last fall to approve a constitutional amendment aimed at blocking a new bridge.

Canadian leaders view a new bridge 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 an international plaza in southwest Detroit.

But the Snyder administration and Canadian government still will have to deal with Moroun as they try to finish assembling land for the project. One of Moroun’s companies owns a handful of parcels required for the bridge and plaza.

Much of the vacant land in the area is owned by the city. With the presidential permit in hand, Snyder said construction could begin as early as 2015, depending on how long the legal challenges take. The crossing may open for traffic by 2020. The project is expected to create 12,000 direct construction jobs and as many as 31,000 indirect jobs.

Moroun, 85, and his family are among the richest people in the United States. He and his family are worth $1.1 billion, according to Forbes.

From The Detroit News: http://www.detroitnews.com/article/20130618/METRO08/306180084#ixzz2WbDlm3ah