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Courts and sparks

The powerful bridge company is tangled up in litigation

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Published 9/23/2009

Like a besieged army, Manuel "Matty" Moroun and his Detroit International Bridge Co. are fighting legal battles on multiple fronts in their high-stakes effort to build a second span adjacent to the privately owned Ambassador Bridge.

Moroun, an octogenarian billionaire and transportation mogul, has long seemed invincible. Certainly his political clout is formidable. As this paper reported earlier this year, Moroun, his family members and top officials at his various companies have contributed more than $1 million to various political campaigns and political action committees over the past two decades.

What Matty wanted, Matty usually got.

But now what he's getting, in addition to mounting bills from his team of attorneys, is stiff opposition from the city of Detroit, the state of Michigan and the U.S. government. Lawsuits are flying back and forth.

In one case, the city of Detroit is in court trying to force the bridge company to tear down a fence it erected to create a security "buffer zone" on the west side of the bridge shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001.

As part of its argument, the bridge company asserts that the fence was erected with the permission of then-Mayor Dennis Archer. In a phone interview with Metro Times, Archer acknowledged that the company was indeed allowed to put up the fence, but emphasized that it was never meant to be permanent.

"It was intended to be temporary, and I underline the word temporary," says Archer, a former state Supreme Court justice now in private practice. "I don't think anything was done that allows them to keep up that fence as long as they want."

Security isn't the only thing at stake in that case, however. Unless the bridge company gains undisputed control of that property, the U.S. Coast Guard — the agency tasked with granting final permission to construct the American side of the bridge — has said it won't allow the permitting process to proceed.

So the Riverside Park legal action, although receiving scant coverage from most local media, is critical to the bridge company. Without that 150-foot strip of land, it can't build its new bridge. And so far, the city hasn't indicating any interest in selling it.

A ruling in that case, being heard in the 36th District courtroom of Judge Beverly Sipes-Hayes, is expected by month's end. But there could be a hitch. In August, after 10 months of litigation, the judge voiced the concern that her court might not have the authority to settle such a dispute.

In another case, this one in Wayne County Circuit Court, the bridge company went on the offensive, asking that the city be cited for contempt because it refused to sell the company a section of 23rd Street — land the company has already fenced off and made part of its massive new truck plaza near the bridge along Fort Street.

The basis for that claim is a 2008 Michigan Supreme Court ruling upholding the bridge company's assertion that, when it comes to facilitating the flow of traffic across the Ambassador, its owner is considered an instrument, or agent, of the federal government. As such, the court ruled, the bridge company does not have to abide by the city's zoning laws.

That 2008 ruling, and a subsequent injunction, the company argued, obligated the city to give way if the company needed its land for any project associated for the bridge. In a victory for the city, Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Kathleen Macdonald refused to issue a contempt citation to the city for refusing to sell land to the bridge company.

Still unresolved, however, are questions surrounding the company's taking of 23rd Street. That issue is central in a dispute where the bridge company is neither plaintiff nor defendant. In that case, a company owned by Walter Lubienski is suing both the federal government and the city of Detroit, claiming they allowed the company to illegally shut off 23rd Street and other public rights-of-way, causing Lubienski's property and the business on it to be "landlocked."

"The bridge company is doing things the federal government isn't even allowed to do," says Roger Craig, a former corporate counsel for the city of Detroit who is representing Lubienski in federal court. In his words, Moroun and his bridge company are acting as if they were "pirates."

Elsewhere on its crowded docket, the company has filed a federal lawsuit in an attempt to stop progress on a publicly owned bridge planned for the Delray area of southwest Detroit. Known as the Detroit River International Crossing (DRIC), the proposed span is a joint project of the state of Michigan, the U.S. government, the province of Ontario and the Canadian government.

With six nonprofit groups as its co-plaintiffs, the bridge company claims in court papers that the DRIC bridge parties "purposely relied on erroneous traffic data, failed to examine alternative crossing locations and neglected to address environmental justice issues related to the new bridge's effect on the low-income, minority Delray neighborhood."

The avowed concern for the poor and people of color can be viewed as a red herring in light of the bridge company's fear of losses if the DRIC bridge is built.

Evidence of a less altruistic motive is found in the records of a case the bridge company brought against the Michigan Department of Transportation.

Filed in Macomb County, where the bridge company is headquartered, the suit involves what's known as the Gateway Project, a joint venture between the state and the company involving changes to interstates 75 and 96 to provide easier access to the bridge (paid for with public dollars), and construction of the sprawling truck plaza (paid for by the bridge company). In the suit, the company claims MDOT, by virtue of its support of the DRIC bridge, is violating the terms of the Gateway project, which was designed to allow a possible second span next to the Ambassador.

William Shreck, spokesman for MDOT, says the state believes both bridges are necessary, and wants to see both built. The bridge company, however, views the Downriver span as a mortal threat.

"MDOT and the other DRIC Proponents propose to build the DRIC Bridge less than two miles from the Ambassador Bridge in order to steal up to 75% of the truck traffic revenue currently collected by the Ambassador Bridge and a similarly large portion of the passenger car traffic," the company claims in a court document.

If that publicly owned bridge were to be built, the "economic viability" of the Ambassador Bridge would be threatened, the company contends.

That case was recently dismissed, with the court saying it lacked jurisdiction.

Another suit, this one filed against the bridge company by the state, alleges that it is the company that's violating terms of the Gateway Project agreement. Of particular concern is an elevated truck ramp the company was supposed to construct so that truck traffic could be routed away from surface streets in the area.

The ramp would benefit the largely poor and minority residents of the Mexicantown area by taking semis using the bridge away from their neighborhoods; it was, says state Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a major reason her constituents threw their support behind the project, and they want to see the bridge company's promise to build it fulfilled.

In its lawsuit, the state argues that if the ramp and other aspects of the project the bridge company agreed to build aren't constructed, the state could be required to return $145 million in federal funds that were used to help pay for the project.

The bridge company maintains that its changes to the plan are relatively minor, and that the MDOT brought the suit as retaliation for opposing the DRIC bridge. State officials insist they are merely trying to force the bridge company to abide by the terms of the contract it signed.

Rep. Tlaib, who recently rallied public support as she successfully fought to fend off a recall attempt engineered by one of the bridge company's minions, has grown used to watching the bridge company throw lawsuits at its problems.

"They try to hold everything hostage and stall things in court while they work to get their way," she says. "They do it because they can afford to do it."

The flip side of al these legal battles, says Tlaib, is that her constituents "are glad to see the city of Detroit and the state finally standing up to the company."

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

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