Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Ambassador Bridge trial feels like Groundhog Day

Posted By on Wed, Oct 5, 2011 at 3:17 PM

Sitting in court the past few days felt like a Groundhog Day experience, only without Bill Murray to provide laughs.

The story has been unchanging since  the summer 2009, when the Michigan Department of Transportation filed a breach of contract suit against the Detroit International Bridge Co. for failing to complete its share of work on the Gateway Project in southwest Detroit.

The state says: Here is what the company (controlled by billionaire Manuel “Matty” Moroun) is contractually obligated to do. Please make them do it.

And the Wayne County Circuit Court judge hearing the case, Prentis Edwards, has consistently sided with MDOT, first telling the company to perform the work the state says it needs to do, and then finding the company in contempt for not following his orders. Edwards, in fact, went so far as to briefly jail bridge company president Dan Stamper earlier this year in an attempt to make certain everyone understood how serious he is.

Yet, despite all the time spent in court, and all the briefs and motions that have been filed, and all the enlarged maps and photos and diagrams and reams and reams and reams of documents that have been entered as evidence, there we were again this week, with the company saying that it keeps getting conflicting and confusing signals from MDOT regarding exactly what’s expected of it.

The intent of the $230 million public-private venture was to provide easy freeway access to the privately owned Ambassador Bridge that links Detroit with Windsor. For its part, the company agreed to do certain work in the area encompassed by its massive truck plaza, which has fueling stations and a duty free shop.

The problem is that the company unilaterally made changes that interfere with the completion of the project. Most significantly, it constructed an approach ramp designed to funnel traffic on and off a new bridge it has yet to receive permission to build. That ramp stands in the way of a proposed roadway designed to keep bridge truck traffic off of surface streets in nearby neighborhoods.

Lawyers for the bridge company have accused MDOT and its employees of deliberately misleading the court, and of continually changing its demands regarding what exactly is  expected of the company.

In effect, the company is telling the judge: “We’re not treating your order with contempt. We’re doing what you want. The problem is, the state keeps changing its plans.”

From our seat, though, it is hard to see how the state has changed much at all. The dedicated truck ramp has been a key part of the plan. It is the reason residents in the area gave their approval to the Gateway Project in the first place. And if it isn’t constructed as agreed to, says MDOT, the state risks having to repay the federal government the $145 million it contributed to the project.

On Wednesday, after two full days of testimony and then a morning spent with each side presenting closing arguments, Edwards announced that he wouldn’t render a decision until Nov. 3.

Will that be the day this movie finally quits repeating itself?

Don’t bet on it.

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