Ambassador Bridge Owners Again Challenge Construction of New Bridge to Canada

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The Moroun family, owners of the Ambassador Bridge, have raised yet another challenge to the construction of a rival bridge — the Gordie Howe International Bridge.

Six companies that the family owns have filed a new lawsuit arguing that the construction is illegal. The lawsuit seeks to halt the Michigan Department of Transportation's efforts to buy land owned by the companies that is in the pathway of the new bridge that the state needs to build, and could lead to another delay in the new crossing to Canada.

"We say any bridge that is going to be built has to follow the law," Mike Cox, the former state attorney general who is representing the six companies that filed the lawsuit in the Michigan Court of Claims, told the Free Press. "We're only asking that this be done in accordance with the law."

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It is unclear whether the lawsuit is just a negotiating tactic to get a better offer for the land that the state is trying to use for the new bridge, or whether the suit is part of a broader strategy to entirely halt the new bridge from being built.

Either way, the Moroun family has a financial interest in delaying construction of the new bridge and have said they will fight it.

Crown Enterprises, DIBDetroit, Riverview-Trenton Railroad, Central Transport, CE Detroit and the Detroit International Bridge Co. filed the lawsuit on Dec. 29 in Michigan Court of Claims against Gov. Rick Snyder, MDOT and the Michigan Strategic Fund. It argues that the state is improperly seeking to use eminent domain to take property from the companies because the state constitution gives the Legislature — not the governor — the authority to build international bridges.

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Anna Heaton, a spokeswoman for the governor, said the governor disagrees with the complaint and that the construction will continue to move forward.

The state is expected to file its response by the end of the month.

A new bridge, according to one estimate by the family, could divert as much as 75% of the Ambassador Bridge's truck traffic.

Every day the rival bridge is delayed means the Ambassador Bridge, which is the only above-ground crossing between Windsor and Detroit, is able to keep generating that crossing revenue. The tunnel under the Detroit River is not suitable for truck traffic, so for now the Ambassador is the only route through Detroit for international truckers and cargo.

Supporters of the plan for the Gordie Howe bridge, however, believe that a new supply route is needed. They said the bridge building would create jobs, and could help transform Detroit into a logistics capital of the Midwest.

The lawsuit complaint says:

"The defendants usurped the Legislature's constitutionally granted authority to build bridges — more specifically here, international bridges  — and hijacked the Legislature's power to approve contracts with they purported to bind the State of Michigan to an agreement  — the Crossing Agreement with Canada for the GHIB's construction without the Legislature's consent or any necessary enabling legislation."

It offers a long history lesson on the authority to build international bridges, starting in the 1800s.

The state Legislature — going back to the building of the Ambassador Bridge in the 1920s — has authorized international bridges, the complaint argues. The new bridge was not authorized by the Legislature. Instead, the suit argues that the governor, made an agreement with Canada, bypassing the Legislature.

Last month, MDOT made offers to buy property — the former Yellow Freight truck yard, a 42-acre site at 7701 W. Jefferson — from the companies that are suing, which triggered the latest lawsuit.

Cox declined to disclose the offer amount.

The state has estimated it would cost about $370 million to buy all the land for the Detroit bridge approaches, U.S. Customs and Border Protection inspection plaza, and connections to I-75. More than 670 parcels, including homes, are needed in the Delray neighborhood for the new bridge project.

The battle over building another span across the Detroit River is a long one.

Snyder has pursued the new bridge since entering office in 2011. A referendum in 2012 to require a statewide vote before moving on any international bridge failed.

This summer, a federal judge dismissed several complaints in a lawsuit filed more than six years ago by the Maroun family to block another span across the Detroit river. U.S. District Judge Rosemary Collyer ruled that Moroun's lawyers had no valid challenge to the U.S. State Department's approval in 2013 of an agreement between the state of Michigan and Canada to build the new bridge.

In the ruling, the court, however, offered "no opinion as to whether the crossing agreement was lawfully executed under Michigan law."

Matthew Moroun, son of family patriarch Manuel (Matty) Moroun, said the family bridge company never intended to cede property without a fight.

Under state law, MDOT can take land for public projects and battle later in court over the price.

Canadian officials in charge of the Gordie Howe bridge have said the bridge could be ready by the end of 2020. But delays could extend that date.