Bridge fight hardly over

And stakeholders other than Moroun have chips on the table

The presence of the Minister Malik Shabazz and fellow members of his New Black Panther Party outside Cobo Center on Friday was just one signal that the desperate fight against the publicly owned New International Trade Crossing won't end until the new span is completed and traffic is moving across it.

And even then, we're told by someone in a position to know, the owners of the Ambassador Bridge have a Plan B ready to go as they scheme to do everything possible to protect the near-monopoly they now enjoy.

As for Shabazz — and the three chartered busloads of people who showed up with professionally printed signs to protest the bridge construction agreement Gov. Rick Snyder and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper entered into — the official reason for their opposition to the new downriver span is this:

Snyder is destroying democracy by imposing emergency managers on financially struggling African-American communities and school districts; therefore everything he wants to do is detrimental to African-Americans and needs to be fought.

Shabazz and his followers, oddly enough, take the position that they don't want to see their tax dollars — or any American tax dollars, for that matter — used to support a project that will create thousands of much-needed jobs and, potentially, help revitalize the Delray district of Detroit.

To be clear on one point: Although Canada is fronting Michigan's share of actual bridge construction costs, saving the state about $550 million up front, the U.S. government (absent any additional help from Canada) will be on the hook for an estimated $800 million to pay for a customs plaza and other infrastructure. Instead of spending any public money, Shabazz says he'd rather see a private enterprise retain its grip on cross-border traffic in the Detroit-Windsor corridor.

You have to wonder what's going on when the NBPP and the Tea Partiers are singing from the same hymnal.

Not to cast aspersions on the motives of Shabazz or anything, but we had to ask him (again) if he and his party benefit at all from the largesse of the Ambassador Bridge's owners — billionaire Manuel "Matty" Moroun and his family.

As it turns out, Moroun and company do provide some cash to help the NBPP in its efforts to "shut down crack houses" in Detroit, Shabazz says.

So there's no connection between that money and the NBPP's opposition to the new bridge Moroun is desperately fighting?

"If the bridge company wants to give us some resources to help do what we would be doing anyway, I have no shame in giving a few dollars to help struggling poor people," explains Shabazz.

In other words, the Morouns and their Detroit International Bridge Company will do whatever they can to avoid seeing a competing bridge built downriver. That includes going ahead with a petition drive aimed at amending the Michigan Constitution. The proposed amendment, if passed, would require that voters approve the construction of any new international border crossing in the state.

Mickey Blashfield, the bridge company's director of government relations, said Monday on Charlie Langton's WXYT radio show that more than enough signatures to put the measure on the November ballot will be submitted to the Secretary of State's office within the next few weeks.

However, language in the just-signed agreement is intended to prevent any subsequent amendment to the state Constitution from being applied retroactively. 

Given the propensity of the Morouns and their Detroit International Bridge Company to litigate, it is a good bet they will be filing as many lawsuits as necessary to forestall construction of a competing bridge.

"Basically, they just throw whatever shit they can against the wall and see what sticks," says a former bridge company employee who spoke with News Hits on the condition of anonymity.

Even if the company knows it won't eventually stop the NITC from being built, it will mount court fights as long as it can, the former employee says. The reason is clear: Every day a new bridge is delayed is another day the Ambassador Bridge maintains what amounts to a monopoly over truck traffic crossing the Detroit River.

And if that new bridge is eventually built, says our source, then the company plans to cut tolls below those charged by the competition in order to keep as much traffic as possible on the Ambassador.

If the NITC is going to be competitive, it will have to do so by being easier to use and more efficient, because the Morouns will not be undercut when it comes to tolls, the ex-employee tells.

Aside from any legal challenges to the new bridge that are sure to be filed by the Morouns or their proxies, the company, which owns a piece of property in the area where the new bridge is planned, will be in a position to delay things by fighting against giving up control of its land.

The state could also face another challenge unrelated to any posed by the bridge company and its owners.

The residents of the Delray neighborhood where the new bridge will be built want a number of assurances that negative impacts from the NITC will be minimized and benefits maximized.

When Snyder was still trying to gain legislative approval for the new bridge, state Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a Democrat who represents Delray, and others were demanding that the governor sign onto a "community benefits agreement" in return for their support.

Now that Snyder had decided to sidestep a Legislature that's all too willing to let Moroun campaign cash influence its decisions, Tlaib and like-minded legislators no longer have their vote to use as a bargaining chip.

That means the city of Detroit — especially the City Council — will have to step into the breach to assure the residents of Delray are protected.

"We are not asking for extravagant things, but instead common sense solutions for this community, like: Trucks should be kept off neighborhood streets, air quality and health protections must be put in place to reduce diesel pollution, neighborhood improvement programs need to be available to residents, families and businesses in the area [need to be] treated fairly during and after construction, and jobs created by the NITC must be offered to local residents," Tlaib asserts. "If this new crossing is good for our state, then it also needs to be good for the residents who will live next to it. The host community is primarily made up of poor and minority families and they deserve all the protections and safeguards that any other community would ask for."

And how can the council assure that?

"The city of Detroit owns 70 percent of land needed for the new bridge," Tlaib tells News Hits. "If that land is to be transferred to the state, that must go through City Council. We are asking the city of Detroit leadership to hold off in transferring or selling property for this project until promises kept."

"If that leadership is smart, if they are creative, they will see that this is a once-in-a-lifetime project that could completely transform a sector of the city that has been neglected for years. This is tremendous opportunity. I hope our city leadership opens their eyes to it." 

News Hits is written by Curt Guyette. Contact the column at 313-202-8004.

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