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Dirty dispute

Bridge company angered by a wall of dirt

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Published 6/24/2009

The proverbial mudslinging got literal this week in disputes involving the Ambassador Bridge Gateway Project and proposed second spans there and further downriver in southwest Detroit.

Speaking for the bridge owner, the Detroit International Bridge Company's president, Dan Stamper, accused the Michigan Department of Transportation of dumping 10,000 tons of dirt onto a state-owned but unopened access route to the new bridge plaza, which is under construction.

He said he wasn't sure where the dirt came from. "It was hauled in," he said.

The dirt pile sits on a yet-unopened roadway, but that didn't stop Stamper from claiming it interfered with bridge operations. He called its presence "retaliation" against DIBC for its recently filed lawsuit challenging a proposed, competing bridge in the Delray area.

"To us this seems like an intentional obstruction of commerce and efficiency at this border crossing," Stamper said at a news conference held on the bridge's access ramp as rumbling trucks often drowned out his voice. "I think the governor should demand this wall is torn down."

The quarter-mile-long dirt pile that Stamper referred to as a "wall" is on a future service drive along northbound I-75 between West Grand Boulevard and the Ambassador Bridge Plaza. When open, it will route traffic to the DIBC-owned duty free store and fuel station. At present, it has dirt piled about 10 feet high along a chain link fence, separating the open access road DIBC owns and the portion of I-75 set to open later this month.

The construction is part of the Gateway Project, a $240 million effort that involves reconstruction of interstates 75 and 96, 18 overpasses and 24 ramps, and involves a consortium of local, state and federal agencies working with the privately owned bridge company. The project's goal is to improve access to the U.S.-Canadian crossing that carries an estimated 23 percent of all surface trade between the countries, according to MDOT.

But, like much involving the bridge company and its owner, Manuel "Matty" Moroun, it hasn't been without issue.

Residents, who a decade ago largely blessed the Gateway Project as then presented, charge the bridge company has since changed the plan to potentially accommodate a second bridge span to Canada. MDOT shares that concern. Other complaints include the bridge company routing millions of trucks through the neighborhood's surface streets, taking a piece of 23rd Street without city approval and blocking access to nearby Riverside Park, claiming homeland security issues for the bridge.

Supported by Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit), whose district covers the bridge and the surrounding neighborhoods, a second bridge project has been proposed further downriver, the Detroit River International Crossing. It has backing from the Canadian authorities, the U.S. Federal Highway Administration and the Michigan Department of Transportation.

In May, Moroun's company sued to stop the Downriver project.

"Within a week and a half of filing the lawsuit, dirt started showing up on this brand-new ramp," Stamper said. "We had expected that the elected official representing this community would have been up in arms," Stamper says.

Tlaib says she is up in arms, but more about the bridge company's actions than anything the state department is doing with dirt on its own property.

"I don't understand what the issue is. If MDOT wants to store dirt there while some construction is happening, they should be able to," she says. "If the bridge company is having a press conference regarding dirt, then we're all in big trouble."

MDOT spokeswoman Brenda Peek did not return telephone calls to Metro Times before deadline.

Stamper charges the dirt prevents traffic from accessing DIBC-owned roads, but Tlaib says that, since the stretch of freeway isn't open yet, it shouldn't be an issue. Much work still needs to be completed to the interstate and other streets before the planned June 29 opening, she says.

Tlaib charges the bridge company is trying to distract from the real news: the rapidly coalescing opposition to the DIBC that has spread beyond the immediate community. Different governmental agencies that she says in the past have heard different stories from the bridge company are now communicating and putting the pieces together about what's actually happened with the bridge project.

"I think one of the things the bridge company has been successful at doing has been projecting whatever information they want to whomever they please. They don't present this project as a whole," Tlaib says. "We know this is a much bigger project that they've presented totally differently. You can't do this little-bit-of-truth stuff. It has to be the whole picture."

And now it's an even dirtier one.

News Hits is edited by Curt Guyette. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or NewsHits@metrotimes.com.

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