Most Moroun challenges to new Detroit bridge tossed

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — A federal judge Wednesday dismissed nearly all of a 5-year-old lawsuit by the Ambassador Bridge’s owners that sought to block a planned $2 billion publicly owned Detroit River crossing and allow them to add a second span.

In a 57-page ruling, U.S. District Judge Rosemary M. Collyer dismissed eight of nine counts of the suit initially filed in March 2010 against the U.S. and Canadian governments.

The decision is a big win for supporters who hope to complete by 2020 the bridge to be named after Detroit Red Wings legend Gordie Howe.

“The decision reaffirms the numerous merits of this critical infrastructure project. This is just the latest great news regarding the Gordie Howe International Bridge, which is full steam ahead and vital to our shared economic future,” said Sara Wurfel, a spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Snyder.

Officials with the Detroit International Bridge Co., which owns the Ambassador Bridge, didn’t respond to requests for comment. The DIBC wants to build a span next to the 85-year-old Ambassador, but has been thwarted by Windsor and Canadian officials.

Billionaire Manuel “Matty” Moroun has at least three other bridge challenges against the U.S. secretary of state, Federal Highway Administration, Coast Guard and the Windsor-Detroit Bridge Authority, which will oversee construction of the new span. Most have not been successful. One is pending before the federal appeals court in Washington over the Coast Guard’s refusal to approve a permit for a second Ambassador span.

Moroun has spent tens of millions of dollars on legal challenges as well as a failed statewide ballot initiative in 2012 aimed at blocking the new bridge.

Collyer refused to dismiss Count 7 of the suit that charges the U.S. State Department didn’t properly approve the crossing agreement. That pact is needed to establish the design, construction, operation and maintenance of the new bridge, set arrangements for Canada recouping the money it is advancing to build the bridge, limit the liabilities of the countries and establish rules for distributing excess toll revenue — once Canada is paid back, Collyer said.

Collyer said if she tosses out the agreement it “would inevitably undermine and slow the planned construction” of the bridge. She rejected an argument from the Obama administration that the agreement is not subject to judicial review.

Worry over delay

The suit argued the crossing agreement violated Michigan law, saying Snyder lacked the authority to sign the deal on behalf of the state and the agreement was not approved by the state Legislature.

Snyder argued in a court filing last month that the judge should not weigh in immediately on a “dispute regarding the allocation of power between the Michigan governor and Michigan legislature.” Snyder cited a Michigan attorney’s general office opinion in 2012 that said he didn’t need approval from the Legislature and said it hasn’t enacted any legislation that would bar the crossing agreement.

The decision means Collyer could hold a trial on the one remaining issue.

The Ambassador’s owners have a separate suit pending in Washington seeking documents under the Freedom of Information Act from the State Department dating back decades.

Snyder’s court filing acknowledged the suit could delay the bridge construction.

The Ambassador’s owners “seek to maintain sole control of bridge traffic at the second busiest border crossing in North America and stop the construction of a new bridge, one that is the byproduct of the leadership efforts of Michigan, U.S. and Canadian officials. Their shared goal is to protect two nation’s economies from a failure of, or threat to, the only existing bridge that crosses the Detroit River,” he said.

“The new, second bridge — one publicly owned — will enhance international trade and travel, and also create thousands of jobs — without costing Michigan a dime. The hard work done by these officials, and the progress already made to bring this historic and critical infrastructure project to fruition by 2020 must not be undone by claims that should not be before the court.”

In July, the Gordie Howe International Bridge authority said it had begun the process of seeking a private sector partner for the project. Finalists are expected to be decided late this year. The selection process is anticipated to be up to 18 months.

“Our overarching goal is to build a safe, efficient bridge as fast as possible. The more financial and project risk that we can transfer to the eventual winning bidder, the better this procurement will be for Canadian taxpayers,” said Mark McQueen, chairman of the Windsor-Detroit Bridge Authority’s board of directors.

Push for second span

Moroun said in court filings that up to 75 percent of truck traffic and 40 percent of passenger car traffic will move to the new span.

Moroun’s bridge company has been fighting efforts by the state of Michigan and the Canadian government to build the bridge it insists will harm the Ambassador’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.

In February, the U.S. Supreme Court said it would not review an appeals court decision concerning the siting of a new Detroit-Windsor bridge, removing another hurdle to the publicly financed span’s scheduled completion in five years.

Without comment, the Supreme Court let stand a U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling issued in June that upheld the Federal Highway Administration’s approval of the Delray neighborhood in Detroit as the preferred location for the U.S. side of a new bridge Canada. Bridge foes said the federal agency violated the National Environmental Protection Act, Administrative Procedures Act, principles of environmental justice and other federal laws.

The high court’s decision came five days after Canada and the United States reached a deal in which Canada will front the money needed to build a U.S. Customs plaza at the Gordie Howe bridge and be repaid through tolls. The $2.1 billion bridge is to be two miles downriver from the Ambassador Bridge and would have direct access to Interstate 75.

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