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Suspension of disbelief



News Hits showed up at Detroit's Southwest High School for a public hearing last week and walked away feeling a little like Alice in Wonderland. And for once that weird sense of complete disbelief didn't have anything to do with illicit mushroom consumption. No, this time it was the Detroit International Bridge Co. (DIBC) that had us feeling the world had gone all topsy-turvy.

There's were no more than 60 people at the hearing — a handful of them on the payroll of the bridge company, and several more from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ), which ran the show.

At issue is what the bridge company calls an "enhancement" project. The "enhancement" being a new span across the river to Windsor, next to the 75-year-old Ambassador Bridge. Never mind that just one year ago the binational commission studying the need for a new crossing nixed twinning the privately owned Ambassador with a bigger brother spawned by the same proud corporate parent. The company is proceeding with plans for a second bridge anyway, saying the Ambassador must be shut down for inspection and possible repair. To keep those semis flowing along one of NAFTA's prime routes, says the company, a new bridge must be built.

All this was explained in the company's PowerPoint presentation. Charts showed the gleaming new span alongside its aging brother.

What set our head to gyroscoping was the claim that the new span wouldn't increase the capacity for moving traffic across the river. The company's being cagey about what will be done with the Ambassador. Right now the official word is that its future is uncertain. Everything depends on whether potential repairs are financially feasible. If repairs cost too much, then the old crossing will be, as they say, "decommissioned." But what if it's still capable of being used?

Well, that's when the double-talk starts. The company says it will be used for redundancy, and as a backup. But things get slippery when they're pressed for specifics. The bottom line is that if it's fixable (and we wonder how far gone it could be when, just two years ago, the company proposed adding extra lanes to it) then the Ambassador will then indeed be available for use. Given that, we asked, how is it possible to claim capacity won't be increased if there are, in fact, two whole bridges instead of one? Scott Korpi, an outside consultant who handled the bridge company's presentation, offered an answer, but to tell you the truth we're still trying to decipher it. Hell, even if you have just the new bridge — which is at least two lanes wider than the old one — isn't there's going to be an increase of at least 50 percent? And if both spans are counted, won't capacity more than double? But good luck trying to get the company officials to admit that. We gave it our best try and couldn't get them to concede the obvious.

Even weirder is the company's contention that a full-blown environmental impact study isn't needed because the second bridge might simply replace the old one. If, at some unknown point in the future, both bridges are needed, then it would be appropriate to conduct such a study to allow the old bridge to be put in service, explained the consultant. So, to make the absurdity crystal clear: It's not necessary to complete an environmental impact study because the new, bigger bridge would only be replacing one that already exists, and if the one that already exists is going to be used too, well that's when you need to study the effects that are essentially being caused by the new one.

Welcome to the tea party, folks

We definitely got the vibe that others in attendance were experiencing that old "one pill makes you smaller" sensation as well. See, last week's hearing being held by the MDEQ dealt only with the proposed bridge's effect on the river. That's it. Questions about things like air quality and traffic increases were ruled out of bounds. The people we heard speak expressed frustration at the segmentation they were witnessing, this breaking the process down to small parts as a way of preventing a broad look at all the interlocking projects involving the bridge company in southwest Detroit.

"The Ambassador Bridge Enhancement Project permit application improperly and inadequately describes the full scope of the expansion planned for the Ambassador Bridge corridor," Karen Kavanaugh, public policy director for the Southwest Detroit Business Association, said during the public comment portion of the hearing. "The permit application," Kavanaugh pointed out, "states that there are not modifications, enhancements or other changes to the existing bridge and that there are no modifications to the plazas [servicing truck traffic]. However, during the DIBC's presentation to the Detroit City Council on Sept.14, 2006, they clearly stated their intention to initiate plaza expansion and a relocation of Fort Street to accommodate existing and future traffic processing demands. The DBIC contends that these endeavors are separate and distinct from the construction of a second bridge and therefore are not including these activities in their proposed Enhancement Project."

It may well be that the U.S. Coast Guard, which is responsible for keeping an eye on the big picture when it comes to approving a new bridge, will decide that a complete environmental impact study must be completed, but so far that's not being required.

As it is now, existing facilities and announced expansion projects cover about 65 acres. But the bridge company, in another permit application on file with the state, indicates a desire to construct a storm water system that will service "an ultimate drainage system of approximately 180 acres."

Clearly, there's a bigger picture, it's just not all that clear what the bigger picture is intended to be. As R. Craig Rupp, a lawyer representing the Southwest Detroit Business Association, told the MDEQ during its public hearing, what the bridge company's trying to do is the equivalent of a developer who wants to build a 90-story structure, but instead of getting such a project approved at the outset simply seeks approval for a one-story building, then keeps coming back for subsequent permits asking for a new floor to be added each time.

As was pointed by Sierra Club representative Rhonda Anderson during the public hearing, because much of the southwest Detroit community is minority and low-income, this is an environmental justice issue. More bridge and facility capacity means the potential for more traffic, which means more trucks spewing diesel fumes into their air.

Instead of the process being segmented, the people here want a comprehensive review. They want to discuss the whole, not just one slice. And they want all of their questions answered, not just some of them. Because the "go ask Alice" routine they experienced the other night proved to be one bummer of a trip.


Follow-up: Last week Metro Times reported on a problem that receives scant attention, domestic violence cases involving immigrant women in the United States ("Hidden Pain," Nov. 15). A figure in that story, Farej Alhayadir, was sentenced Monday to spend between 12 and 20 years in prison for the rape of his teenage wife. Judge James Callahan set the sentence in Wayne County's Third Circuit Court.

Alhayadir pleaded not guilty to first-degree criminal sexual conduct in the May 27 attack. His wife, 17 at the time, originally cooperated with police but recanted her story during his September trial. Rape kit evidence and a nurse's testimony about her injuries corroborated the original story.

During the investigation and at her husband's preliminary examination in June, the victim said her husband raped her while his brother held her down in her Dearborn apartment.

The brother, Raad Alhaydir, is charged with criminal sexual conduct and is scheduled for arraignment in Wayne County Circuit Court on Dec. 7.

News Hits is edited by Curt Guyette. Contact the column at 313-202-8004 or

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