Bridge backlash

Last week was a "win some, lose some" experience for Ambassador Bridge owner Manuel J. "Matty" Moroun, who is seeking to build a second span next to his existing crossing. The surrounding community, judging from turnout and comments at a public hearing March 17, is against him. But a state board has voted to authorize nearly $800 million in bonds for the $1 billion project.

Board members of the Michigan Strategic Fund, a division of the Michigan Economic Development Fund, decided 7-1 at their March 18 meeting to approve the financing. The vote came after a month-long delay that required an extension from the U.S. Department of Transportation for the bond authorization. The fund board in February had tabled a vote.

Meanwhile, at the request of U.S. Rep. John Dingell (D-Dearborn), the U.S. Coast Guard held a public hearing on an environmental report predicting "no significant impact" if the second span is built and adds six lanes to the Ambassador Bridge's four. A roughly 500-strong crowd packed the gym at Earhart Middle School for a public hearing about the report.

The forum became an opportunity for these folks from the community to voice a collective opinion about the project in general. The spirited crowd overwhelmingly called for a more comprehensive environmental assessment of the project proposed by the Moroun-owned Detroit International Bridge Company. (See this week's Letters to the Editor page for pointed reaction to our News Blawg report on the hearing.)

Forty people spoke, and 39 of them rejected the limited environmental assessment and opposed the additional span.

State Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit), whose district covers southwest Detroit, where the bridge is located, spoke first. She received a rousing welcome from the crowd. Tlaib is a longtime opponent of the DIBC project and a supporter of a publicly funded crossing to be located further downriver.

"A full environmental impact study is needed," she said. "My residents deserve much more than a short-cut environmental impact assessment project."

She exceeded the three minutes allotted for each speaker but, as officials tried to cut her off, the crowd cheered her on.

"Please be patient with my community," she told the Coast Guard. "This is an issue from the bottom of their hearts. You can see it. Let them speak and hear them."

She was followed by residents, other elected officials, nonprofit administrators, medical workers, teachers and business owners who echoed her sentiments: They oppose the second span; they want the Coast Guard to revisit its impact assessment; they worry about the noise, pollution and traffic from trucks using the bridge; they support the Canadian government's rejection of the bridge company's plan; they don't trust the bridge company.

Victor Abla, a resident of the area, praised the turnout. "It shows the passion of these residents of this growing and vibrant community," he said. "We don't want another bridge. We want environmental justice."

Kathleen Wendler, president of the Southwest Detroit Business Association, said businesses in the area are suffering from the ongoing construction of the Gateway Project, a Moroun undertaking that's closed Interstate 75 and has torn up streets in the Mexicantown area for improvements to the Ambassador Bridge entranceways. "The scope of a development represented by an international border crossing requires that a full environmental impact statement is undertaken," Wendler said.

Only the Rev. Horace Sheffield III of Detroit spoke in favor of the project, saying it would bring jobs. The 25 or so supporters that accompanied him left immediately after Sheffield spoke. "Just for the record, they don't live in my district," Tlaib said.

The Coast Guard has no set timetable for announcing when a second environmental assessment might be held — if, indeed, one is conducted at all. But officials were clearly surprised by the turnout at the hearing. They ran out of sign-in sheets.

Hala Elgaady is the Coast Guard's Washington, D.C.-based administrator for the bridge project. "It's a lot of information to digest," was all she would say following the hearing.

The Coast Guard is taking public comment until March 30. You can send faxes to 202-372-1914 or mail to Commandant (CG-5411), U.S. Coast Guard, 2100 Second St. SW, Washington, DC 20593.)

News Hits is edited by Curt Guyette. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]
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