Detroit council wants a piece of future bridge proceeds

By Joe Guillen, Detroit Free Press

If the Moroun family builds a second Ambassador Bridge, the Detroit City Council wants to make sure the city has a chance to generate revenue from its traffic.

The council could vote as early as Tuesday on a much-debated land swap agreement with the Detroit International Bridge Company that would advance the Morouns’ plans for a twin span to the aging Ambassador Bridge.

Although approval would still be required from the state and federal governments in both the U.S. and Canada, the land swap would give the Morouns a 3-acre piece of land at Riverside Park in southwest Detroit needed for a twin span.

“If and when a bridge is constructed, the city needs to be able to participate in the upside,” Councilman Scott Benson said in an interview.

To that end, Benson proposed a mechanism to capture property taxes associated with a second Ambassador Bridge. The money would be used to offset air pollution, increased truck traffic and other negative impacts of a new bridge. The mechanism wouldn’t necessarily raise more money, but it would direct the property taxes to specific uses rather than going into the city’s general fund, Benson said.

The council’s planning and economic development committee also wants to set up a work group with the Bridge Company to figure out other ways the city could make money off another bridge. Benson said his idea for the city to get $1 off tolls paid by each car crossing the new bridge was rejected.

The council is expected to attach an addendum that incorporates Benson’s property tax capture and the work group to study a second span to the land swap deal Mayor Mike Duggan proposed in April.

A vote on the deal is on the agenda for Tuesday’s council meeting, but the vote could be pushed back a week if the addendum’s terms are not satisfactory.

Councilwoman Raquel Castaneda-Lopez, whose district includes the Ambassador Bridge, has a much longer list of proposed changes she wants made to the land swap deal.

Rather than transfer a piece of Riverside Park to the Bridge Company, Castaneda-Lopez suggests the city grant an easement for 100 years, with the city collecting 10% of revenue generated from a second Ambassador Bridge. She also wants the city to become part owner of a second bridge, similar to the public-private partnership that manages the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel. Furthermore, she wants the Bridge Company to enter into a legally binding community benefits agreement that includes requirements for training and hiring Detroiters, environmental mitigation and community investment.

Castaneda-Lopez said now is the time for the council to negotiate benefits from a second Ambassador Bridge.

“Everyone supports the park, the reopening of Riverside,” she said. “The conditions around a second span need to be incorporated now.”

For now, it appears Duggan’s office is leaving it to the City Council to prepare the city for a potential second Ambassador Bridge.

A list of 55 questions Castaneda-Lopez submitted to Duggan’s office about the Riverside Park land swap included nine questions about a second bridge. Alexis Wiley, Duggan’s chief of staff, answered every question the same way. She referred Castaneda-Lopez to the proposed work group, which has not been approved or set up yet.

Bridge Company officials were receptive to the property tax capture and work group, Benson said. A Bridge Company representative declined to comment Friday because the concepts had not been given to him in writing yet.

Councilwoman Mary Sheffield agreed the pending land swap deal with the Morouns needs to include some sweeteners for the city.

If the second span is built, that’s a significant revenue stream the bridge company could be receiving, Sheffield said. “How does the city benefit from that?” she said.

Under the proposal pending before the City Council, Detroit would give the Morouns about 3 acres at Riverside Park in exchange for nearly 5 acres of land next to the park that the bridge company owns. The swap would allow the city to expand Riverside Park and would give Moroun control over land needed to pursue a twin span of the Ambassador Bridge.

The Bridge Company also would pay the city up to $5 million for park improvements under the proposal. On top of that, the Morouns have agreed to install about 1,050 windows in the Michigan Central Station, a commitment Duggan values because it could help erode the train depot’s international reputation as a sign of Detroit’s decay.

Duggan and residents who support the deal say it is a unique opportunity to fix up the park and provide valuable recreational opportunities in southwest Detroit. Park improvements to be made starting this fall include new baseball and soccer fields on the northeastern part of the park, a new riverfront playscape, new benches, picnic tables and an improved waterfront promenade.

Sheffield said she is ready to support the land swap deal if it includes the addendum spelling out the work group and other provisions discussed with the Bridge Company earlier this week.

But Benson said he’s not sure. “I am not committing to anything,” he said.

Originally posted by the Detroit Free Press