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Taking a toll

Matty Moroun and the bridge brawl in southwest Detroit

Bridge photo for MT by Bruce Giffin
Moroun photo courtesy The Windsor Star
Detroit International Bridge Company owner Manuel "Matty" Moroun didn't wait for government ermission to start building a new span.
Photo: Curt Guyette
State Rep. Rashida Tlaib on a tour of her southwest Detroit district.
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Published 6/10/2009

Taking a reporter on a tour of the area around the American side of the Ambassador Bridge, state Rep. Rashida Tlaib expresses a mixture of outrage and disbelief at the audacity of the span's owner.

Steering her dark gray Buick Rendezvous through the southwest Detroit neighborhood she represents, the freshman Democratic legislator keeps one hand on the wheel and an occasional eye on the road while pointing out what she says is evidence of a company that acts as if it were above the law.

There is the obvious: Towering concrete piers supporting a monumental ramp that, for the time being at least, leads to nowhere. The elevated roadway is intended to connect to a new bridge that billionaire Manuel "Matty" Moroun and his Detroit International Bridge Co. want, but have not yet received permission to build. The U.S. Coast Guard has asked the company to show why constructing the ramp before receiving the government's permission isn't a violation of the law.

There is the invisible: Another ramp that is supposed to be constructed by the DIBC, but may not materialize because of unilateral changes the company made to a $240 million project that includes the federal government, the state of Michigan, the city of Detroit and area residents as "stakeholders." The absence of that ramp — which the bridge company is obligated to pay for — is a major issue, says Tlaib, because it is intended to keep the 3 million trucks that cross the bridge every year away from the surface streets of this community that serves as a nexus point on North America's busiest commercial border crossing.

There is the incredible: a sprawling new truck plaza that features multiple diesel pumps and a duty free shop — also owned by Moroun and his DIBC — that includes what used to be a segment of 23rd street. That strip of road, according to the city of Detroit, was taken without its permission.

There is the ludicrous: A serpentine route that leads to a nearly stranded bait shop that had direct access to it severed when that piece of 23rd Street was taken by the DIBC.

And then there's the ominous: A Cyclone fence that blocks access to a swath of nearby Riverside Park, where signs that starkly warn would-be trespassers to stay clear of the area or risk prosecution. The signs look to be the handiwork of the Department of Homeland Security. But that's not the case. The notices — like the fence — were put up by the bridge company, apparently with no authorization from Homeland Security officials at any level. 

"You try and tell people about this, but they have trouble believing it," Tlaib says. "I don't know anywhere in the country that has a company like this. No one ever says 'enough is enough.'"

For its part, the bridge company maintains that it is largely exempt from local zoning regulations, and it has a Michigan Supreme Court decision to back up that contention. In 2000, the city, after issuing numerous violations, took the company to court for constructing tollbooths that were in violation of zoning laws.

The company claimed that, through an act of Congress, it was long ago designated an instrument of the federal government because it controlled traffic on an international crossing. The state's high court validated the company's claim. As such, the court ruled, local zoning laws could be superceded if they interfered with the bridge company's ability to facilitate traffic flow across the Ambassador Bridge.

That opinion looms large, especially for the people of southwest Detroit. But just how much authority does it give to a company owned by a man described by Forbes magazine as one of America's richest people. 

It is a question almost certain to be tested during the coming months as signs of conflict between the bridge company and various units of government begin to show. 


GATEWAY TO TROUBLE

Two years ago, state transportation Director Kirk T. Steudle described the Gateway Project — adjacent to the part of Detroit known as Mexicantown — as the "largest single construction contract that MDOT [Michigan Department of Transportation] has ever undertaken in any part of the state." The "culmination" of efforts that began in the mid-1990s, the project included major reconstruction of parts of Interstates 75 and 96, with the goal of improving access "to the #1 U.S. Canada commercial crossing that carries 23 percent of all surface trade between the two countries."

It is indeed a massive project. Begun in 2008, it involves reconstruction of 2.5 miles of I-75 and I-96, and includes 18 overpasses and 24 ramps. It is already more than 70 percent complete. The cost of the entire project is expected to be $240 million.

As one MDOT report pointed out, it is a unique effort, involving a consortium of state, local and federal agencies working in conjunction with the privately owned bridge company. There was also, the report noted, "intense public involvement in the effort."

Government officials, as well as the bridge company and local residents, considered it to be an investment that would pay dividends far into the future.

"The project," Steudle said in an MDOT informational brochure, would "provide direct access from the Ambassador Bridge to adjacent freeways with new highway and ramp reconstruction ..." In addition to construction jobs generated while the project is under way, there are the vast economic benefits expected to come from improving a vital piece of transportation infrastructure, allowing companies to move goods more quickly and cheaply. 

Surely that's welcome news for struggling automakers and parts suppliers. Tourism would also get a good boost. 

As MDOT engineer Greg Johnson noted, "At the end of the day, this project will help retain jobs, boost the state's $5 billion tourism industry and ensure that the Detroit-Windsor border remains the route of choice for the $115 billion in international trade that flows to and from the United States annually."

But the project, as originally conceived, offered more than economic benefit as a key selling point. Steudle also promised that "safety and quality of life in communities located near the bridge will be dramatically improved as the project removes truck traffic exiting the bridge off city streets and directly onto the freeway."

It was that promise that got many residents of Mexicantown to buy into the project.

"As a politician who, first and foremost considered himself a representative of my community, I supported Gateway in large part because of the promise it would remove traffic from neighborhood streets," says Steve Tobocman, who, before being forced out by term limits last year, held the state House seat now occupied by Tlaib. 

That community buy-in, however, came knowing that there would be some sacrifice. Closing a portion of I-75, they knew, would take a heavy toll on area businesses that would lose direct access from the freeway. And that's exactly what happened. 

"The Gateway Project has had a significant effect on the businesses in Southwest Detroit," according to testimony provided to the House Transportation Committee by the Southwest Detroit Business Association during a March hearing. "Businesses, and consequently jobs, have been, and will continue to be impacted by the massive transportation projects planned and under way in southwest Detroit.

"To date, businesses in southwest Detroit have reported the following losses: The best and most organized have lost up to 15 percent of their business, others 35-40 percent.

"Customers to Southwest Detroit cannot find their favorite stores and restaurants due to poor directional signage ... and the severe deterioration of alternative surface routes due to the traffic of massive commercial trucks."

"My community never wrote a check," Tlaib asserted in a letter to Steudel and DIBC President Dan Stamper, "but it has invested heavily in this project's successful completion."

But success, at least as it's measured by the residents of southwest Detroit, is by no means a foregone conclusion at this point.

In late December, MDOT engineer Victor Judnic wrote bridge company President Dan Stamper a letter expressing concern that the company had constructed bridge piers before submitting an altered plan to the department for review. "These piers are in conflict with the proposed truck ramp ..." Judnic wrote. In addition, fueling stations in the newly built truck plaza were also in "direct conflict with the truck ramp which is to be constructed" according to a contractual agreement between the bridge company and the state.

Bridge company vice president Matthew Moroun, Matty's son, responded with a letter outlining "major problems" the company was having with the Gateway Project and "our partnership." Chief among those was the claim that the state "has missed, and looks very likely to miss, various key interim completion dates for major pieces of the project" and that the company is "being damaged in a number of ways by MDOT."

The letter also stated that, "Additionally, and potentially more disconcerting [is] the fact that the Ambassador Bridge's requests to improve or beneficially change the project on our part have been met with the stubborn resistance of deaf ears."

Conspicuous in its absence was any attempt by Matthew Moroun to address concerns regarding construction of the truck ramp.

The state fired back a letter from engineer Greg Johnson on Feb. 9. It began by pointing out that "construction of MDOT's portion of the Gateway Project is nearly 75 percent complete, and several months ahead of schedule."

As for the claim that the bridge company's suggested improvements were falling on deaf ears, Johnson detailed how the state was chagrined to learn that, "much to MDOT's surprise" the bridge company had unilaterally altered agreed-upon plans and had already started constructing an expanded truck plaza that included segments of 23rd Street and West Grand Boulevard "without coordination or approval from MDOT or the city."

In other words, the bridge company was seeking approval for changes it had already made and begun implementing before ever letting the state know what was going on.

The letter also raised anew the issue of the elevated ramp intended to keep bridge traffic off of neighborhood surface streets. Moving truck traffic out of Mexicantown and surrounding neighborhoods was a key factor in gaining federal funds to help pay for the project.

"DIBC's unilateral actions to change the design and construction of the plaza, which first came to light at our December 10, 2008, meeting with DIBC, are creating a situation that could cause the State of Michigan to lose $145 million in federal funding. 

"Among other things, DIBC actions concerning the changed design and construction noted above would not remove trucks off local streets, which is the community's chief objective for this project."

The bridge company did not respond to phone calls and an e-mail seeking comment. 

Brenda Peek, an MDOT spokeswoman, says that talks with the company have been ongoing, but to date there has been no resolution. She notes, however, that major changes at this point are not easily accomplished. As she points out, the contract in place was arrived at after years of negotiations shaped by input obtained during more than 125 public meetings held during the past 15 years. "The scope of the Gateway Project isn't something that can be changed on demand," she says. "The department has continuously voiced objections, and the DIBC continues to deviate from our agreement. But we are still trying to move forward."

Read between the lines and the message is clear: The state isn't wavering when it comes to insisting that the bridge company abide by the major components of its contract. Too much money is at stake. As for the bridge company, Matty Moroun didn't become a billionaire by giving way without a fight. 

He and his company are relentless in pursuing their goals, Tlaib says. 

"What the bridge company does is exhaust people so that they give up and stop fighting."

If, in fact, the goal is indeed to squirm out of its obligation to build the truck ramp, that would be a "horrible reversal of one of the founding purposes of entire project," says former legislator Tobocman. "It would be undermining the purpose of project."

Although no one is willing to say so on the record, sources familiar with the situation indicate it is likely that the dispute will wind up in court, sooner rather than later. 

Court, as it turns out, is a place the bridge company is more than familiar with. In May, the company filed a federal lawsuit in an attempt to stop a publicly owned bridge from being built a mile downriver from its Ambassador Bridge. Eager to thwart what it described in a letter to MDOT as unwanted competition, the company joined forces with a handful of groups — at least two of which are newly created — in claiming the downriver span unduly affects the area's largely minority population.

In addition, after being taken to court by the city of Detroit, which is attempting to force the company to relinquish land it has taken over in Riverside Park, the company filed a countersuit in a different court claiming it needs to keep control of the property for national security reasons. 

Opposition to the downriver bridge and a pitched battle to retain control of a 150-foot swath of Riverside Park are two strands of the same thread, Tlaib says. The company wants to build a new six-lane span immediately south of the four-lane Ambassador Bridge, and it doesn't want competition from the publicly owned bridge downriver. 

Moroun's confidence that he'll get his new bridge is reflected in the towering ramp that, for now, ends abruptly just north of the park.

"That's how the company operates," Tlaib says. "They do things first and then ask for permission later."

The necessity of keeping control of the parkland is underscored by the fact that the company, in at least one instance, claimed to have already acquired it. 

That information was presented to the Coast Guard — the only government agency empowered to grant or deny the company's request to build a new bridge — during a public hearing held in May. Some 500 people turned out to oppose the new span, dwarfing the 40 bused in to voice support.

Sean Mann, a southwest Detroit resident steeped in the details of the controversy, pointed out that the company, in an attempt to secure bond funding from the state for the project, informed the Michigan Strategic Fund in a May 2007 letter that "all property has been acquired to allow construction of both phases of the [truck plaza and new bridge] project."

Mann added: "My problem with this is the fact that DIBC has not acquired the property or proper easements from the city of Detroit for the use of Riverside Park, where the towers would be situated."

The administration of interim Mayor Ken Cockrel Jr. — who supported the publicly owned span — had indicated it had "no plans to sell or lease the subject portion of riverside Park to DIBC," according to a Planning Commission memo.

The situation is less clear now that Dave Bing has replaced Cockrel in the mayor's office. During the campaign, Bing repeatedly voiced support for Moroun's bridge. Bing's communication team did not respond to requests seeking comment on Bing's stance regarding Riverside Park.

The council, however, made its position known last week when it passed a resolution opposing the bridge company's efforts to put a second span on parkland. It noted that the sources of funds used to create the park stipulated that it "can only be used for recreational purposes in perpetuity" and that to allow any other use could be a violation of state and federal law.

That's not the only obstacle standing between the existing ramp and the proposed bridge Moroun is determined to connect it to. Canadian authorities, like their counterparts at the U.S. Federal Highway Administration and the Michigan Department of Transportation, want to see the publicly funded span built downriver.

In a letter earlier this month to the leaders of the Michigan House and Senate, Michael Wilson, the Canadian ambassador to the United States, wrote that the bridge company's proposal to build a second span had been carefully considered by members of the bi-national, government-sponsored Detroit River International Crossing committee, and had been rejected. 

At the time, the company was seeking to "twin" the existing Ambassador Bridge. Now the company is saying it needs to replace the 80-year-old structure. However, it's also said that it plans to refurbish the existing bridge once the new one is built. Concern remains that the company may eventually try to put both bridges into operation. 

However, according to Wilson's letter, his government is willing to consider the company's proposal to build a replacement bridge but that, after 18 months of requesting information to conduct a thorough environmental assessment of the project, the company still has not produced the requested material.

Moroun and his bridge company have another problem on their hands as well. In March, Hala Elgaaly, the Coast Guard's bridge program administrator, wrote to bridge company President Stamper asking that he show how beginning construction of the bridge before receiving final permission isn't a violation of the law.

Resolution of that issue is still pending.

But the company's determination to treat the public parkland as its own gathered a good deal attention last year when Joel Thurtell, a former Free Press reporter who now posts a popular blog, was in the park taking pictures of the bridge.

Thurtell wrote about a "shotgun-toting" security guard who pulled his pickup truck behind Thurtell's car and attempted to detain him. 

Thurtell, who has contributed to this paper in the past, subsequently wrote to the Coast Guard to inform it of the situation as it was considering granting Moroun's company permission to build a second span.

"Soon after I posted my story on my blog, Joel on the Road, I began hearing from folks — many from southwest Detroit — who wanted me to know about their stories," he wrote. "I heard from people who, like me, had been harassed by armed guards from the bridge. I learned that bridge guards several times had ordered one of Detroit's top recreation officials to leave the city's public Riverside Park. I started doing more research. As the stories and information continued to come to me, I realized there was much more to this incident."

Thurtell, who tried unsuccessfully to get Detroit police to investigate the incident, has been following the bridge issue closely since.

He offers a few observations. 

In regard to the city's ongoing court battle to have the fence taken down and the bridge company off the property, he says the city has been "very, very patient putting up with all of Moroun's legal maneuverings. In my opinion, he's a squatter. And I don't know why they don't just send in a SWAT team and tear the fence down."

Although a bit puzzled by the way the city is acting, he has little doubt about what's motivating Moroun and his bridge company.

"I think he's acting like he owns it because he needs to own it if he wants to be able to build that bridge," Thurtell says.


ON THE HOOK

"It's like a cattle baron in the old West fencing off open range and then making everyone else stay off the property," is the way attorney Roger Craig, formerly Detroit's corporation counsel, describes the situation between his client Walter Lubienski and Matty Moroun.

Moroun, of course, is the cattle baron in this analogy. 

Lubienski's property is part of Tlaib's tour. The ludicrous part. Since the bridge company closed off and took over the segment of 23rd street between West Fort Street and the freeway, getting to the property, which is home to a bait shop, is like a treasure hunt. Instead of going there directly, which is the way people went before 23rd Street was shut down, drivers are led on a circuitous route by a series of signs. 

It's not just an issue of importance to Lubienski and Dean Aytes, owner of the Lafayette Bait and Tackle Shop. Operating out of property owned by Lubienski, he's barely hanging on, watching his business collapse since the road was closed. (See our previous story about Aytes, "Last man standing," April 29).

It is also an issue for the Michigan Department of Transportation, which is attempting to hold the bridge company to its obligation to construct a two-lane driveway on the easement Lubienski is legally entitled to.

For state Rep. Tlaib, helping a mom-and-pop business like Lafayette Bait & Tackle stay in business is prompted by the same impulse that has her calling for a "Liberate Riverside Park Day," with a hoped-for public outpouring by residents to take back public land she says belongs to them.

It is the reverse of the typical battle that usually sees private landowners trying to stave off government takeover of their property. 

In this case, it's the public trying to retake property from a private corporation.

"This is a company that thinks it's above the law," she says, "and their actions show that."

Curt Guyette is Metro Times news editor. Contact him at 313-202-804 or cguyette@metrotimes.com.

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