May 30, 2014 at 11:19 pm

Judge says Coast Guard can't be forced to issue permit for Moroun's second bridge

A judge rejected a motion to force the Coast Guard to issue a permit for Ambassador Bridge owner Matty Moroun's proposed twin span. (Steve Perez / The Detroit News)

A federal judge dealt a blow Friday to Ambassador Bridge owner Manuel “Matty” Moroun by rejecting a legal motion to force the Coast Guard to issue a permit for his proposed twin span.

The judge’s ruling means construction of a publicly financed bridge called the New International Trade Crossing, backed by the Canadian government and Gov. Rick Snyder, would face competition only from the more than 80-year-old Ambassador.

U.S. District Judge Rosemary Collyer said in her opinion that Moroun failed to prove the Coast Guard’s decision not to issue a navigational permit until certain property rights for Detroit land were bought is “arbitrary and capricious.”

Mickey Blashfield, director of government relations for the Detroit International Bridge Co., issued a statement Friday in reaction to the ruling:

“We respect the Court’s determination that our motion was premature as the NITC bridge is simply too uncertain at this time. We will continue to work toward construction of a new Ambassador Bridge span and await the processing and consideration of our remaining claims in this action.”

Moroun’s bridge company has been fighting efforts by the state of Michigan and the Canadian government to construct the bridge across the Detroit River that it insists will harm the Ambassador Bridge’s business. In court filings, the company argued it needs to build a second span across the Detroit River to handle traffic while it repairs the Ambassador so it can compete with the publicly financed bridge.

The Canadian government doesn’t expect to complete construction of the new bridge for at least another decade. The bridge could take even longer to finish because the Obama administration has failed to propose $250 million for building a Detroit customs plaza in its annual budget plan. The Canadian government is financing the rest of the $2 billion project.

Moroun’s legal team argued the Coast Guard’s failure to issue a navigational permit for its twin span inflicts “irreparable harm” on the bridge company. But Collyer said Moroun couldn’t prove he would be hurt because building of the competing publicly financed bridge “is by no means imminent or inevitable” since there is still legislative and regulatory maneuvering that could stop construction.

The judge also rejected Moroun’s contention that the Coast Guard’s decision exceeded its regulatory authority. The federal agency denied a permit to Moroun through “reasonable interpretations of its enabling statutes,” she wrote in her opinion.

The Coast Guard has decided not to issue a navigation permit for Moroun’s proposed second bridge until it purchases the air rights over the land in Detroit where it would build the second span — something the city has rejected.

“... Congress provided the Coast Guard with statutory authority to condition navigational permits on the acquisition of necessary property rights,” Collyer said.

A bridge company official argued in an affidavit that a Detroit official told him state officials instructed the city not to sell Moroun rights to two pieces of land needed to build a twin span.

Detroit’s Chief Operating Officer Gary Brown gave The Detroit News on Friday a copy of the Nov. 7 letter, which makes no mention of instructions from the state not to sell the land rights to Moroun’s company. Snyder spokeswoman Sara Wurfel also said Snyder never instructed Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr’s team to deny Moroun the chance to buy the property rights.

“The NITC is one of the most important infrastructure projects with the utmost economic significance in our region, state and country, along with our largest trading partner, Canada. Continuing to move forward is essential. This ruling helps ensure that will happen,” Wurfel said Friday.

The Moroun family has spent more than $1 million since 2009 in its legislative fight against the state for the new bridge — separate from its legal maneuvers. More than $105,000 in political donations in the past five years has been donated to 18 of the 26 GOP senators who earlier this month voted to ban state purchases of land for the bridge.

Snyder and other proponents argue that the second span south of the Ambassador Bridge will bolster economic growth within America’s busiest international trade corridor and create jobs in Michigan.

Collyer’s ruling also gives the Coast Guard the right to prevent the Detroit International Bridge Co. from getting a permit to build a second span next to the Ambassador Bridge.

lfleming@detroitnews.com
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