MATTY GETS SLAPPED BACK; NEW BRIDGE SPAN HITS WALL

Big news today regarding the Detroit International Bridge Company and its attempts to build a new span adjacent to its Ambassador Bridge. In a letter dated Wednesday, March 2, the U.S. Coast Guard notified bridge company President Dan Stamper that it is returning the company’s permit application because it has failed to acquire a piece of city-owned property needed to build the new span.

The property in question is a section of Riverside Park just west of the existing bridge. The bridge company fenced off a swath of parkland shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and refused to relinquish it; the city took the company to court late in 2008 in an attempt to force it to tear down the fence and give the city back its property. After a protracted battle, 36th District Court Judge Beverly Hayes-Sipes last October ruled that the bridge company — owned by trucking tycoon Manuel “Matty” Moroun — had to tear down the fence and give the city back its property. The company appealed that decision, and, the last time we looked, the fence was still up.

The company claims the fence is needed to protect the bridge from terrorists. As this paper reported previously, that claim appears bogus since similar fencing is absent on the eastern (downtown Detroit) side of the span. Likewise, there is no such fencing along either side of the bridge over in Windsor.

What appears certain is that the company needs that piece of land if it wants to build the new bridge. The company has disputed that assertion, saying previously that, if need be, it could build the bridge without actually sinking piers into the parkland. However, the Coast Guard doesn’t seem to accept that claim.

According to the just-issued letter, the application process, which began more than three years ago, should not have even been initiated absent the bridge company’s legal control of the property.

“In fact, it is Coast Guard policy to not even accept permit applications unless and until all property rights issues have been resolved,” wrote Hala Elgaaly, administrator of the Coast Guard’s bridge program. “In this case, the Coast Guard accepted the application in June 2006 and continued to process it in the intervening 3.5 years in a good-faith effort, because of repeated DIBC assurances that acquisition of property rights was imminent. The Coast Guard has received no credible indication that the property rights issue is any closer to being resolved now than it was over three years ago.”

Any efforts by the company to acquire the property legally appear to be going nowhere.

“The City of Detroit has assured the Coast Guard that they have not, and likely will not, convey these rights to the DIBC,” Elgaaly wrote.

The Coast Guard is responsible for permitting on the American side because the bridge crosses a navigable waterway.

Likewise, state Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a Democrat who represents the southwest Detroit neighborhood where Riverside Park is located, says that she has been told by a highly placed member of the Bing administration that the mayor has given no indication that he currently has plans to sell the property.

Even if Bing were inclined to sell, other hurdles would need to be overcome. Sale of city parkland would need to be approved by City Council. Also, because the parkland was originally acquired with federal grants, with the understanding that it remain open for public use, getting out from under that stipulation would, at best, be a time-consuming endeavor.

Tlaib, an outspoken critic of the bridge company and its heavy-handed tactics, hailed the Coast Guard decision, saying it represents a clear victory for the community she represents.

“What the bridge company is very good at is making people believe it has a viable project,” she says. “But we are beginning to see that crumble down.”

“What we are seeing is justice prevail over the outrageous illegal actions of this company,” she adds. “We don’t have the resources that this billion-dollar mega-corporation has, but, as I tell my residents, we have power in numbers. A lot of people of people have been working very hard on this issue.”

The Coast Guard letter states that the company’s application can be re-submitted, but not before it can offer “definitive proof of the resolution of the property rights issue.”

A representative of the bridge company acknowledges receiving the letter, and says a response is still being formulated.

We’ll keep you posted.

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