Hurdle cleared in effort to build Gordie Howe bridge

Eric D. Lawrence
Detroit Free Press

The Michigan Department of Transportation has cleared a hurdle as it moves to acquire property for construction of the Gordie Howe International Bridge.

Billionaire Manuel (Matty) Moroun’s companies have granted permission, after initially refusing, for MDOT to access property the Morouns control in southwest Detroit so the agency can survey and conduct other work.

MDOT had sought a court order to allow the agency access to property, which the Ambassador Bridge owner uses for a trucking terminal on West Jefferson Avenue in Detroit. The agency is acquiring property in Detroit’s Delray neighborhood for the new Canada-financed bridge between Detroit and Windsor and filed suit Wednesday in Wayne County Circuit Court, saying it needs access “immediately” to avoid delays in construction, which is projected to start in 2017.

But Michael Samhat, president of Moroun’s Crown Enterprises, explained that he had granted the permission in writing the day after MDOT’s attorney set a 24-hour deadline, but that a lawsuit was filed anyway. After reaching out to MDOT the next day, he said the suit was withdrawn.

“Our intent was not to fight or resist their entrance to the property. We understand it’s part of the process,” Samhat said. But “we need to have some details.”

Samhat referenced an aerial picture that MDOT provided of the Central Transport operation showing curving red lines through the property, presumably representing what MDOT believes it might need to acquire.

“It’s obvious to us it’s not them taking a sliver,” Samhat said, noting that if that area is eventually acquired “it would greatly impair the operation.”

As reported by the Free Press in July, MDOT needs to control up to 800 parcels in the southwest Detroit neighborhood to provide room for the approaches to the bridge and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection inspection plaza. The report said that “legal wrangling over the price of individual parcels could go on for years after residents and businesses are relocated and even after the Gordie Howe International Bridge is scheduled to open in 2020.”

The exchange between Samhat and MDOT played out in a series of back-and-forth letters since the beginning of October. Moroun’s companies own more than 20 parcels that MDOT wants to access, but only one appeared to be at issue.

In a letter Oct. 12, Samhat suggested, in denying MDOT’s access request, that it was looking out for its business and employees.

“We are sensitive about the disruption and employee concern that your inspection will cause with this parcel. This site is utilized by Central Transport and it is one of the larger employers in this Detroit neighborhood,” according to the letter, which also notes that it’s “premature to start the process toward condemnation when important decisions concerning the ability of the project to go forward are currently before the federal court in Washington, D.C.”

That letter followed a decision by U.S. District Judge Rosemary Collyer, who dismissed “virtually all of the remaining legal counts in the Morouns’ five-year-old lawsuit against federal and state officials” in their fight over the new bridge. Moroun’s Detroit International Bridge Co. had claimed an exclusive franchise to operate a bridge between Detroit and Canada without competition.

MDOT’s attorney, Mark Zausmer, said in his letter seeking access to the Moroun property that the agency needs to survey, take measurements and photographs, appraise the property and conduct noninvasive environmental inspection activities.

The MDOT lawsuit noted that Samhat was requesting “an assurance that their ‘business and employees will not be damaged in this condemnation process.’ ”

It might not be a surprise that MDOT turned to the courts to address its access request. Moroun has aggressively fought construction of the Gordie Howe bridge, which would be downstream of the Ambassador, at the same time he has been fighting, despite significant opposition in Canada, to build a second span for the Ambassador.

Originally posted by the Detroit Free Press