By Todd Spangler
WASHINGTON — An Ambassador Bridge official said Thursday that a member of Detroit emergency manager Kevyn Orr’s team told him last fall that the state had made it clear it did not want the city selling rights to the bridge company that could allow it to build a twin span to replace the 85-year-old bridge.
If true, the declaration made by Detroit International Bridge Co. President Dan Stamper in federal court in Washington could raise questions about whether anyone in state government used the city’s financial crisis — and the state’s intervention — as a pretext to keep a second span from being built.
State officials did not immediately return a request for comment. Gov. Rick Snyder, who appointed Orr last year as emergency manager, has been a wholehearted supporter of a rival span to be built over the Detroit River to Windsor that Ambassador Bridge officials are trying to block.
Stamper’s declaration was submitted to U.S. District Judge Rosemary Collyer, who concluded a hearing requested by bridge owner Manuel (Matty) Moroun to stop the Coast Guard from issuing a permit to let the rival New International Trade Crossing, or NITC, move forward.
She did not rule on the request for an injunction but is expected to do so in the days or weeks to come. On Wednesday, she had chided Moroun’s son, Matthew Moroun, the company’s vice chairman, for not spending enough to simply buy the rights needed for a twin span from the City of Detroit.
The written declaration submitted Thursday wasn’t immediately available, but the Ambassador Bridge’s lawyer, Hamish Hume, described it to Collyer as Stamper’s version of an Oct. 22 conversation he had with Gary Brown, a former City Council member and chief operating officer for Detroit under Orr.
Stamper said Brown told him that politics aside, an easement over Riverside Park next to the Detroit River could be sold to the bridge company but that “Lansing” — presumably meaning some person, branch or agency in state government — “had instructed the city not to sell the easement,” Hume said.
The city’s refusal to sell the Moroun family an easement to “air rights” over Riverside Park has been a key reason the Coast Guard hasn’t issued a permit for a second span rising over the park that Ambassador Bridge officials say they want to build to replace their aging one.
Bridge company lawyers argue state and federal agencies are not playing fair with their proposal, in favor of the rival NITC, which is to be paid for by Canada. As the Free Press reported, Matthew Moroun said Wednesday if the NITC gets its permit before his company does, it is “the end of the race.”
Hume said Stamper provided the declaration in response to Collyer’s questions to Matthew Moroun on Wednesday, and said lawyers hadn’t brought it up before because they didn’t want the court “to conclude we won’t get the easement” despite opposition in the city to sell it to the bridge company.
“We will get the easement. But we have to work through the politics of Detroit,” Hume said. He added that, in another declaration, Matthew Moroun told Collyer he had sent an offer of $5 million for the air rights to the city Thursday.
Asked about Stamper’s declaration, Orr’s spokesman, Bill Nowling, said he had “no information about (the) veracity of Mr. Stamper’s comments” and said only that Orr and his staff “have been focused on restructuring the city.”
Brian Collins, of the U.S. Justice Department, argued that the bridge company’s failure to get a permit has no relation to whether the NITC gets one and that, in any case, it would be premature to issue an injunction since no NITC permit has been issued. He added, however, that the Coast Guard’s requirement that private bridge owners have easements in hand before providing a permit is appropriate.
But the question of whether someone at the state could have contacted Orr’s office or the city and advised against selling the easement could be an important one, said Collyer, especially in a case like this one, where the state is party to a deal to build a rival bridge with Canada picking up the tab.
“Is that acting as a sovereign (state government),” she asked, “or is that acting as a competitor?”
Originally posted in the Detroit Free Press