Be careful what you ask for

Author: Rod Meloni, Local 4 Business Editor, @RodMeloni
Published On: Mar 08 2012 12:24:27 PM EST   Updated On: Mar 08 2012 12:33:20 PM EST
DETROIT -

It is said in politics, when everyone walks away from the negotiating table angry, you know you have a good piece of legislation.

Perhaps that is not so much the case in the long running battle over the Detroit International Gateway Project.

This morning, Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Prentis Edwards, clearly chagrinned over the long running delays and the war between Matty Moroun’s Detroit International Bridge Company and the Michigan Department of Transportation, handed down a decision that left both parties shaking their heads and residents of the neighborhood wondering what really was solved.

Edwards turned over control of the Gateway construction project to MDOT.

The judge’s goal is to take massive amounts of truck traffic off of Fort Street and other Detroit city side streets and get it onto the Gateway plaza as soon as possible. The judge further instructed DIBC to place $16 million into an account by March 20 so MDOT can pay to begin construction. DIBC will pay more if it costs more too, says the judge.

The head shaking part comes from the frustration on Moroun’s part at losing control over the project. The state, for its part, doesn’t want the job. It had asked the judge to put a receiver in charge and have a third party do the work. No one is walking away happy here and there is no clear answer whether the judge’s desire to get the truck traffic moved will happen any time soon.

Moroun’s attorney, Godfrey Dillard, said he and his clients were greatly disappointed by the ruling because the DIBC can do this work in about six months. MDOT, he said, may not be able to complete the work in 18 months. When asked about Dillard’s assertion, MDOT region engineer Tony Kratofil said he had no way of knowing how long it will take, and seemed more than a little stunned this massive project ended up dropped in his lap.

Furthermore, Edwards ordered DIBC owner and billionaire Moroun, his son Matthew and DIBC president Dan Stamper to appear at the next hearing on March 22. This appears to be the end of a year’s long battle and more recent contempt of court citation for Matty Moroun and Stamper. Stamper spent a couple of nights in jail and Moroun spent one as they battled mightily to keep the Gateway Project work.

Their attorneys in court today raising what amounted to a white flag, assuring the judge they no longer wanted “war” with MDOT and set out a construction schedule they hoped would convince the judge they were serious about following his order. An MDOT attorney said for all the talk, Moroun and Stamper did not propose anything close to what the judge ordered two years ago. The judge was unmoved by the Morouns and obviously felt since MDOT got in bed with the Mourouns originally to do this billion dollar project nearly a decade ago, it needed to finish the work.

Moroun’s made no bones about his desire to keep the construction project done to his specifications that would have been the jumping off point of a second span across the Detroit River. Moroun still hopes to build that second span in the larger battle with Gov. Rick Snyder and Canadian officials. It is going to get quite difficult now because the judge’s order requires the demolition of the so-called Pier 19, which is the bridge abutment sitting next to Fort Street where Moroun hoped to launch his second Ambassador span.

This entire battle, both the smaller one involving completing Gateway, and the larger pitting Moroun against Snyder, who favors a public bridge two miles south funded with Canadian money, has been a vicious fight. It pits the interests of a private company versus the state’s belief in the need for serving the greater good.

It is a unique battle because this is the only privately owned bridge like it in the United States. Most bridges are government owned and operated. It is easy to understand how this give and take is contentious, especially since the Ambassador Bridge is such a lucrative crossing. Snyder’s first act as governor was to call building the new bridge with Canada “a no brainer."

Moroun’s biggest problem in getting his second Ambassador Bridge span is the Canadians do not want to empty truck traffic onto the side streets of Windsor as it has for roughly 80 years. Instead the Canadians want to move the bridge south of Windsor. Indeed you need a place to land a new bridge and you can’t do that without a willing partner.

Still, the notion the state of Michigan and the Canadian government can simply take away a private asset on this scale leaves one wondering where they believe they derive that power. It is quite likely a court will end out sorting out those questions.

As it stands now, a judge is deciding the state needs to take on a job it doesn’t want from an uncooperative company and the trucks keep creeping through a Detroit neighborhood and will keep doing so for the immediate future.

For all of the time and energy spent, for all the jail time doled out, for all the gnashing of teeth, what’s been accomplished here today does little to solve the problem residents asked to have solved.

Yet it does move the whole “war” in another direction.

Indeed, be careful what you ask for.