Benefits and the bridge

Jul 12, 2017 at 1:00 am

Matty Moroun's 90th birthday was last month, and for some reason, my invitation to his party must have gotten lost in the mail. That's not all that much of a tragedy, however.

It's hard to know what to get a man who is worth $1.54 billion, and whose only known desire is to keep his monopoly and prevent a badly needed new bridge from being built across the Detroit River. He succeeded in this for years.

That's due in large part to his buying off legislators with "campaign contributions" and other favors — men like former state senator and now U.S. Rep. Mike Bishop, who for years have risked our economic future by doing Moroun's bidding.

The Ambassador Bridge, built in 1929, was not made for today's giant tractor-trailers. Large pieces of concrete have been falling off it into Windsor neighborhoods.

Nor is it where anybody would put a bridge today, given traffic patterns and freeway alignments. People in surrounding neighborhoods have worried about their kids breathing exhaust fumes, and with good reason. But finally things have changed.

The new Gordie Howe International Bridge is going to be built. Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan helped make that more certain by giving Moroun an anti-birthday present by announcing a long-awaited community benefits agreement for the long-suffering residents of Detroit's Delray district.

That's where the U.S. entrance to the bridge will be, in what had been a thriving, mainly Hungarian-American, neighborhood back in the 1920s. It's been a long, slow slide since then, exacerbated by uncertainty about the bridge.

Homeowners whose houses were directly in the path of construction were in line to get a buyout.

But until a couple of weeks ago, many others whose streets and lives would be permanently disrupted were offered nothing.

Nor was anybody offering to do anything for the folks left in the area who will be forced to breathe exhaust-rich air and suffer the rumbles of many huge trucks and other traffic, 24/7.

But the residents weren't passive. They had a leader, who doesn't actually live in Delray, but does live close by: Simone Sagovac, director of the Southwest Detroit Community Benefits Coalition, and a member of a related group, the Delray Community Advisory Group.

They kept the pressure on, and did their best to let those in power know they were people, not a statistical problem.

Finally, on June 23, the city announced a sweeping community benefits agreement that Duggan, in the middle of a reelection campaign, said was a package "that addresses the needs and concerns of the community."

What meant more to me was that Sagovac also endorsed it, though with a touch of reserve. She mainly wanted to make sure people knew this wasn't just her, but the result of a lot of "community members and partners from various places."

They all came together to make sure they would be heard. As long as promises are kept, "We support this agreement and look forward to the implementation of it," she told me.

In its broadest outlines, the deal looks like this: The city will sell all the properties needed for the bridge to the authority in charge of building the "footprint."

Detroit City Council will have to approve that — but assuming they do, the city will set aside $48 million for community benefits. About half of that would be used to relocate anybody whose home is outside the "footprint" and wants to get out of there — provided they stay in Detroit.

They will have the option of swapping their home for a vacant one elsewhere, and having the city pay up to $60,000 to make their new home habitable. Detroit would pay their moving expenses too, and set up a real estate office in Delray to help people find decent homes.

The rest of the money would go for things like job training and health monitoring, and a neighborhood improvement fund. But the devil is always in the details.

Sagovac, who was cautiously optimistic, did note that there was always some "concern over the implementation," in dealing with the city; even if you've paid for the eggs, you are never entirely sure of breakfast till they are in your hands.

Possibly nobody has followed bridge issues so well or for so long as Gregg Ward, who owns the Detroit-Windsor Truck Ferry, and has fought for a new bridge for years.

Ward told me that essentially, this was a great thing. What was presented as a single "community benefits" agreement is actually a complex of four separate deals.

One of the least noticed was one under which the city is selling the needed property to MDOT, the Michigan Department of Transportation. This will allow MDOT to begin the long-awaited and essential transfer of major public utility lines, etc. for the bridge.

Ward also thinks the agreements will be passed by City Council. What he fears, however, is that various council members may try to skim off some of the money needed for improvements in Delray for their areas.

"The state and Canada won't care," he says. "They'll have got their land and that's all they need." He also thinks there may need to be some added incentives to make people move.

He fears, too, that some members of City Council may demand Duggan sign a "Memorandum of Understanding" that would provide a legal guarantee that he'll do what he's promised. The mayor refuses to sign such agreements on principle. Ward fears that if Council stubbornly insists, that could torpedo the benefits deal, at least till after the election.

That in turn could set back the construction schedule, since the bridge authority can't hire a partner to build the bridge until all the land is officially ready and available.

However, he adds, if everything happens as proposed, "this is 100 percent positive. This is an awesome start."

Let's hope the people of Delray, and not the troll under the dying old bridge, continue to smile.

Bob Young's Folly? For years, state Supreme Court Justice Robert Young was famous for his bow ties, keen intellect, acerbic wit, occasional plain nastiness, and his far-right views. Imagine a much smarter Clarence Thomas.

Earlier this year he announced he was resigning from the court where he'd served since 1999, evidently to make money. That made a certain amount of sense; he's 66, and could have legally served only one more term because of his age.

But within weeks after leaving the court, he popped up to say he would seek the Republican nomination to run for the U.S. Senate against Debbie Stabenow next year.

Suddenly, I wondered if Young was so smart after all. Since 1974, Republicans have been trying to defeat Stabenow for jobs ranging from county commissioner to state senator to Congress. They sneer at her, make fun of her weight, call her ineffective. But she's always beaten any Republican she's faced.

Oakland County Sheriff Mike Bouchard tried to defeat her in 2006. He lost by more than half a million votes. Five years ago, U.S. Rep. Pete Hoekstra was going to knock her off.

He was the powerful head of the House Intelligence Committee, remember? Stabenow beat him by just under a million votes. Why does Robert Young think he can do better?

The fact is, one high-ranking Washington Democrat told me, that Young and those backing him probably don't have any expectation he will win. That's not why he's running.

The idea is to give Stabenow a challenge and make Democrats spend money to hold the seat — money that otherwise might go to another competitive race.

Then, in return for his efforts, Young would get a reward, perhaps an appointment as a federal judge, a job that he could hold for life, without having to worry about elections.

True? Nobody knows what's been hinted behind closed doors. But deals like this have happened before.