Judge puts state in charge of bridge project

The Gateway Project’s long, strange trip took another weird turn today when the judge hearing the dispute between the Detroit International Bridge Company and the Michigan Department of Transportation decided the DIBC should pay the state to complete the company’s share of the project.

That decision by Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Prentis Edwards came despite impassioned pleas from lawyers, representing the DIBC and its top officials, claiming the company had experienced a drastic change of heart and would quickly complete its share of the controversial project according to the judge’s orders.

Edwards has twice jailed company officials for contempt of court — including putting billionaire Manuel “Matty” Moroun behind bars for a night earlier this year — after the DIBC repeatedly ignored his orders to complete the southwest Detroit project according to the terms of a contract with the state.

“We have put down our swords,” attorney Godfrey Dillard insisted.

Playing into that decision was the fear that Moroun, whose family controls the company that owns the Ambassador Bridge, and bridge company President Dan Stamper could again find themselves behind bars.

“We want our clients to not have to fear going to jail every time they walk into court,” said Dillard.

The attorney outlined a plan for completing the bridge company’s share of the $230 million public/private project by Sept. 4.

But Edwards, whom the company has accused of playing politics (and worse) in this case, clearly thought the DIBC had taken too long in arriving at its professed cooperative attitude.

In announcing his decision, Edwards pointed out that DIBC signed its contract with the state eight years ago, and that two years have passed since he first ruled that the company had failed to complete the project as originally agreed to.

And even though the company claimed it was willing to cooperate completely, it continued disputing what, exactly, had to be done with what’s described in court documents as Pier 19. That pier supports an approach to a hoped-for second span to the Ambassador.

As pointed out by Robert Mol, the state attorney representing MDOT, the company built that approach even though it had not yet received approval from the federal government to build a new bridge.

Mol also accused the company of lacking a sense of urgency regarding the completion of the work it’s contractually obligated to do.

However, MDOT representatives said they weren’t expecting the judge to place completion of the project in the hands of the state. The judge had previously said that he thought the bridge company was in the best position to finish the job — which includes construction off a truck route designed to get bridge traffic off local surface streets.

Previously, MDOT had estimated that it would take the state 12 to 16 months to complete the work. The bridge company argued in court Thursday that it would have the job done in six months.

Despite that, the judge still turned complete control of the project over to the sate. But the bridge company will have to pay for it. Edwards gave the company until March 20 to deposit $16 million into an account for that purpose.  If the project exceeds that amount, the company will also have to pay for the overage.

After the hearing, attorney Dillard said he was unsure whether an appeal was possible.

Regardless of that, there is more to come in this case. Edwards ordered Matty Moroun, his son Matthew, and DIBC President Stamper to appear before him again on March 22.