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Add "exit RAMPS" to the list of issues being litigated by the Detroit International Bridge Co. and its leader, Manuel "Matty" Moroun.

The Warren-based company filed suit last week in the Michigan Court of Claims against the Michigan Department of Transportation, claiming the state is delaying opening ramps from Interstates 75 and 96 to the new Gateway Plaza.

Bridge officials claim that, because MDOT is part of an attempt to build a competing bridge downriver, it is attempting to "damage the Ambassador Bridge's business." 

The state has responded that it would "love" to open the ramps. 

"All we need is for the Ambassador Bridge to follow their signed contract and build what they agreed to build," says Bill Shreck, spokesman for the Michigan Department of Transportation.

As reported earlier this year ("Courts and sparks," Sept. 23), Moroun is embroiled in several lawsuits with local, state and federal governments over fences, property and permits associated with the existing bridge, the Gateway Project and a second bridge the company wants to build next to the Ambassador.

Moroun's disputes with the state this year center around the new plaza at the Ambassador Bridge — the Gateway Project, which is a $240 million project financed by the state and federal governments as well as the DIBC. The project, most of which has been completed, includes reconstruction of interstates 75 and 96, 18 overpasses and 24 ramps, and provides access to the Moroun-owned duty-free store and fuel sales.

In June, the dispute over the plaza got dirty — literally — when Bridge Company president Dan Stamper held a news conference and accused MDOT of dumping 10,000 tons of dirt on the state-owned ramps. The piles were preventing their opening, Stamper said, as he led reporters and photographers on a tour of the site. He called on Gov. Jennifer Granholm to demand the wall of dirt be removed and accused the state of interfering with bridge operations because the company had filed a lawsuit challenging the legality of the proposed, competing bridge, the publicly owned Detroit River International Crossing that would be built farther downriver in Delray.

MDOT responded then as it does now — by pointing out the bridge company's failures to live up to its construction agreements. According to Shreck, if MDOT opened the ramps today, DIBC would not be able to construct the two ramps over 23rd Street along with the dedicated truck road the company had agreed to build. That would route trucks from customs inspections directly to freeways without touching local surface streets. 

That part of the plan — getting bridge truck traffic off local streets — was the whole reason residents of southwest Detroit eventually gave their support to the Gateway Project. For the Bridge Company to renege on that part of the deal is unacceptable, the state says. 

All of which ties into the issue of the unopened ramps. Rather than attempt to punish the Bridge Company, the state is trying to ensure that Moroun and his minions abide by their part of the deal. Opening the ramps at this point, it is claimed, would make it more difficult for the company to construct what's needed to get trucks off neighborhood streets.

Opening the ramps at this point would also affect a lawsuit involving what's claimed to be the bridge company's illegal taking of a section of 23rd Street.

"These public roads are part of the agreed design that DIBC guaranteed to construct as part of its $35 million performance bond issued to the state," Shreck says. "Opening the ramps would also put Michigan taxpayers at risk by, in essence, agreeing with the Ambassador Bridge building on public and private land they do not own, opening the state up to litigation by those property owners whose land was taken without their permission."

In a letter sent last week to company president Stamper, MDOT Director Kirk T. Steudle pulled no punches, saying, "... if anyone is to blame for obstructing the progress of the Gateway Project and impacting international trade, it is the DIBC. ... Since it is the DIBC's failure to complete the necessary work that is impeding the completion of this important project, that responsibility is in your hands."

"In all of our previous attempts to resolve our issues with DIBC," wrote Steudle, "the answer has simply been that things have changed and you don't feel you have to honor your agreements."

With the company refusing to comply, he added, "we have no other recourse but to seek resolution of our disputes in the courts."

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

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