The battle of the bridge

May 24, 2006 at 12:00 am

Driving his red SUV through southwest Detroit's Delray neighborhood, John Nagy points to the bright spots of a few new housing developments springing up. But he also makes note of the red dust that belches from a nearby foundry and covers many of the houses. He rolls past the old Fisher Body plant, abandoned by General Motors in the 1980s and sitting like a rotting carcass on Dragoon Street. Then there's the foul-smelling Detroit Waste Water Treatment Plant spreading its fumes throughout the area.

"It's almost like there's a mark on the map that says, 'If you want to do something crappy, come here,'" says Nagy, head of the Delray Community Council.

But lately Nagy, a retired machine operator who's lived in the neighborhood his entire 51 years, has become excited by a proposed project he hopes will spur nascent redevelopment efforts.

In March, after a year spent evaluating 15 site proposals, the Bi-National Partnership, composed of U.S. and Canadian government officials, recommended anchoring the American side of a second bridge between Detroit and Windsor in Delray.

You'd think Nagy and other community leaders would be dead set against funneling thousands of semis spewing diesel fumes through their neighborhood every day. But the promise of development dollars has helped win them over.

Also motivating them is the prospect that if they don't support the plan proposed by bureaucrats, they may be left to deal with transportation baron Manuel "Matty" Moroun and his Detroit International Bridge Company, owner of the Ambassador Bridge.

Often vilified on both sides of the Detroit River for their high-handed ways, Moroun and his company have vowed to build a second span on their own — no matter what U.S. and Canadian officials want. And, despite the opposition of southwest Detroit community leaders, he has as an ally Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick.

The way Nagy and others see it, a second bridge is going to be built. With traffic increasing, Detroit's current border crossings will reach capacity in the next 10 to 25 years. But, if the choice is having a span constructed with public oversight, with the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) playing a key role, or being subjected to a private company that has a history of being unresponsive to community concerns, the government-backed proposal is by far the lesser of two evils.

"We don't want a bridge," Nagy says. "But we're going to get a bridge, and I want to be on the front lines of negotiations. And if MDOT doesn't complete their project, we will be stuck with Matty Moroun."

Nagy pronounces the name Moroun like it leaves a bad taste in his mouth. The Grosse Pointe multimillionaire began his career cleaning cars and buses at his father's Detroit gas station. Through the 1970s, he bought shares in the private company originally authorized by Congress in 1927 to build the Ambassador Bridge. In 1979, his Central Cartage Co. obtained a controlling share by buying out Warren Buffett's stock in the company.

Now his business empire extends to trucking companies, duty-free shops, real estate firms and insurance suppliers throughout the area.

It's an empire that continues to grow both in size and power. In 2005, Moroun's Ambassador Port Company was named the sole operator of the city's ports in a deal the Detroit City Council now considers too lopsided to leave unchallenged (see "Port in a storm," MT, April 26).

The city is also challenging in court the bridge company's claims of being a "federal instrument" that doesn't have to abide by local zoning laws. The company is also accused of taking city land without paying for it (see "A bridge too far?" MT, March 22).

Now, with Moroun saying his Detroit International Bridge Company (DIBC) will twin the Ambassador Bridge regardless of what the Bi-National Partnership may be planning, residents are concerned his grip on southeast Michigan's transportation network — and the effect that has on their lives — will become immeasurably stronger.

In our backyards

The Bi-National Partnership — consisting of the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT), the U.S. Highway Administration, Transport Canada and the Ontario Ministry of Transportation — has concluded that cross-border car traffic between Windsor and Detroit will grow by 57 percent, and truck traffic by 128 percent, within the next 30 years.

Even in scenarios that would slow the increase — such as a decline in auto manufacturing in Detroit and the possibility of fewer garbage trucks hauling Canadian trash to Michigan — traffic at the Ambassador Bridge and the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel would exceed capacity no later than 2033, according to a study done by the partnership.

With more than a quarter of all trade between the United States and Canada flowing through those two routes, the overload could cost an estimated 80,000 U.S. jobs and 70,000 in Canadian by 2030, creating a $13.4 billion drain on the two economies, the study predicts.

Once it concluded that a second crossing would be needed, the Bi-National Partnership in March 2005 launched the Detroit River International Crossing study to determine where it should be.

Fifteen crossing sites were originally proposed, ranging from crossings to be built near Belle Isle to the renovation of an unused rail tunnel running under the river.

Most of the site plans were scrapped within the year, as technical considerations mixed with political realities.

The study discarded Belle Isle projects almost at the outset, deeming major construction anywhere near the popular island park too much of a political "live wire," says Detroit Councilmember Sheila Cockrel.

The so-called "Jobs Tunnel," the proposed conversion of a railroad tunnel near the abandoned Michigan Central Station into a truckway running under the river, was disqualified after the partnership decided the six lanes required would create too much havoc in downtown Windsor.

Downriver options were dropped in October after a petition signed by nearly 30,000 area residents protesting the idea landed in the lap of Gov. Jennifer Granholm. In an e-mailed news release, she declared the sites had been found impractical. The partnership, which was supposed to formally make the announcement the following night, was left with nothing new to report.

Also ruled out was the Detroit International Bridge Company's proposal to build a self-financed twin alongside the Ambassador Bridge. The partnership nixed the idea of handing control of another crossing to Moroun, saying that Canadian representatives saw a "need for more choice in border crossing options."

That left Delray, which didn't have downriver's political clout.

The U.S. government's $1 billion construction of a bridge and adjoining truck plaza in the area would be a massive undertaking, one that would change the face of the community. The partnership has until mid-2007 to decide where in Delray it would anchor a bridge — it is currently studying two potential plaza sites there and three in Windsor — but each of the Delray options would consume about 10 percent of the neighborhood and displace some 500 people. To ensure that trucks entering or exiting the plaza would minimally affect local streets, MDOT would bump the nearly two-mile stretch of I-75 between the Clark and Springwells exits farther south to provide a direct route to the plaza's entrance. And to calm residents alarmed about one of the plazas' proximity to Southwestern High School, MDOT has proposed placing a multi-acre green space "moat" around the plaza walls.

MDOT officials have met frequently with residents, promising to sweeten the pot if and when a bridge is built. At 23 public meetings conducted so far in southwest Detroit, agency director Kirk T. Steudle and study director Mohammed Alghurabi have sat with residents in community centers and high school gyms, answering questions and seeking input. They promised the agency would help bring housing and commercial redevelopment to the neighborhood, showing pictures of varying styles of residential buildings, cultural attractions and business projects, asking residents which would be most welcome.

At first, Nagy says, he had no intention of agreeing to an international crossing running through his neighborhood. But after hearing MDOT's promises, his opinion changed.

"I think, overall, the bridge is a win-win situation," he says. "It's going to do away with a lot of blight and contaminated properties."

Not all his neighbors think that way.

Mary Szawala told MDOT representatives at a public meeting in March that fair-market payments for homes wouldn't mean anything to residents too old to start their lives over.

"You take a tree that's 60 years old, try to transplant it. It'll die," she says. "It's the same with people. You move these people, they'll die."

Some environmental groups also warn that quality of life may worsen. Roshani Deraniyagale-Dantas, community project coordinator at the Lansing-based Michigan Environmental Council, says that extra truck traffic could exacerbate respiratory illnesses already prevalent in the community.

"One in five children in southwest Detroit has asthma, three times the national average," she says. "And there are many studies linking diesel truck emissions with asthma and other respiratory diseases."

She says that for her group to endorse the bridge project, MDOT would have to commit to funding a new, environmentally friendly building for Southwestern, one complete with state-of-the-art air filtration systems and health clinics. Alghurabi says MDOT is seriously considering the proposal.

But while the criticisms may be valid, Nagy says, it's better to work with government officials to address problems instead of trying to kill the project, especially when the alternative would be to have a privately owned business calling the shots. Most of the area's community groups agree — leaders of the Southwest Detroit Business Association, the Bagley Housing Committee and the Mexicantown Community Development Corporation have all come out in support of the DRIC study.

Dolores Leonard, a member of the Sierra Club's environmental justice committee, has also come to endorse the study. Although she says she opposed the plan at first, she came to see the necessity of a new crossing after reviewing economic information provided by MDOT. At a community meeting held at Southwestern High School in April, she testified to her change of heart.

"It's become abundantly clear to me that a bridge is needed," she told the audience. "And it's become abundantly clear to me that a bridge will be built. I don't want a bridge in my area, but I don't have a choice. So let me have a voice to speak. Will I have a chance to speak to Mr. Moroun? No. Will I have a chance to speak to MDOT? My taxes pay their salary, so yes."

Canadian Mary Ann Cuderman, who heads the Windsor West Community Truck Watch, expressed similar sentiments at the same meeting.

Saying that she has dealt with both Moroun's bridge company and the Bi-National Partnership, she prefers the partnership.

Cuderman worries about the harm a new bridge could have on Windsor's historic Sandwich Town district, which was the last stop on the Underground Railway for runaway American slaves in the mid-1800s. The district is perilously close to two of the three Canadian plaza sites proposed by the partnership.

"Of the three plaza options, one of them is in Sandwich," she says. "That's our concern, and we've told them that is not the preferred option. My experience is that they're willing listeners. I believe in the DRIC process, and I really want to see it continue."

But when it comes to the Detroit International Bridge Company, she has a different story.

"They're as bad as any corporate neighbor could ever be," she says. "They've never once consulted with the people here" on the planned expansion. "For them to go ahead and twin the bridge, Sandwich Town would lose 120 acres and they'd build a road right through the center of the area."

Dan Stamper, president of the DIBC, says that when residents like Cuderman have complaints about his company's activities, they can relate them to the appropriate government agency.

"We'd work together to respond to it," he says.

But Cuderman says she already expressed her fears to Skip McMahon, director of operations at the Canadian Transit Company, the Windsor-based sister company of the DIBC.

"I told him that if he wanted to do something to the Sandwich area, I could arrange a meeting with some of the Sandwich community groups," she says. "He didn't respond to that."

He did, however, reassure her that the company would make its business practices more community-friendly.

That was three months ago.

"I haven't seen any changes," Cuderman says. "Not one thing has been done to correct the situation."

Private vs. public

Last June, state Rep. Kathleen Law (D-Gibraltar) introduced legislation to guarantee public oversight of any new international crossings in Detroit. The bill, co-sponsored by Rep. Steve Tobocman (D-Detroit), would create a Detroit River Crossing Authority composed of state and local politicians and residents of the affected area. The bill awaits debate in the state House of Representatives' Transportation Committee.

As Tobocman points out, the government has done a pretty good job managing international crossings so far: Of the 24 crossings between Canada and the United States, 22 are publicly owned, he says.

"The issues are too great to not be managed by the public," he says. "People would think you were ludicrous if you said, 'We should build a major, regional, privately-owned airport.'"

Interestingly, one group has advocated such an airport: the Midland-based Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a free-market think tank that advocates the privatization of most government services. But even the ardent free market boosters at the Mackinac Center say a case can be made for public ownership of a new Detroit River crossing.

"Private is better than public," says Michael LaFaive, the center's director of fiscal policy. "But competition is better than monopoly. I don't know whether the benefits of having the private sector involved are outweighed by the lack of competition."

He adds that a public bridge could conceivably be better for motorists, since the state has the option of lowering the toll by subsidizing it with taxpayer dollars.

The idea that a government-run bridge can be a good deal for the public is supported by a 2005 report compiled by Tobocman's office. Produced in conjunction with management at the Peace Bridge, a publicly owned and operated span connecting Buffalo, N.Y., to Fort Erie, Ontario, it compares the tolls at eight major bridge crossings and the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel between the United States and Canada. The report shows that the privately owned and operated Ambassador Bridge is the most expensive to cross — it charges $5.50 per auto for a round trip, sometimes twice the amount asked for at other bridges. Only the tunnel charges more. The Peace Bridge itself charges cars $2.50 per round trip.

The reason the Ambassador Bridge charges more than the other bridges is basic capitalism.

"They charge what they can get, like most businesses," says John Taylor, an associate professor of marketing and logistics at Grand Valley State University who studied public and private crossings for MDOT in 1996. "There currently is absolutely zero oversight of toll increases on either side of the border."

Ron Rienas, manager of the publicly owned and operated Peace Bridge, says tolls sustain the crossing.

"We don't rely on tax revenue for operation," he says. "Whatever we take in we spend on the bridge."

And when revenue exceeds expenses, he says, the bridge helps fund local projects. Earlier this year, the Peace Bridge authority gave $2.5 million to the city of Buffalo for park redevelopment; in 2004, it spent $1 million to develop a landscaped promenade commemorating area veterans. The publicly run Thousand Islands Bridge in New York, he adds, used its funds to restore nearby Boldt Castle, which is now the most popular tourist attraction in the area.

To see what happens when a public bridge doesn't make enough money to pay for itself, one need only to look at the Mackinac Bridge. From 1969 to 1986, the state provided $3.5 million a year to the bridge authority for upkeep because traffic volumes were lower than expected. The authority paid the money back, says Bob Sweeney, spokesman for the authority, and is now self-sufficient. In the bridge's 52-year history, tolls were raised twice and actually lowered once. The latest increase, in 2003, took the car toll up a dollar to $2.50.

The DRIC study estimates the U.S. cost of acquiring the land necessary for a new bridge and plaza, pulling the required permits and building the infrastructure at about $1 billion. Though the details are still being discussed, the two countries would split the cost of the bridge itself evenly and pay for their own plazas. Michigan government would pay 20 percent of the U.S. share of the project while the feds would pick up the rest. The provincial and federal governments of Canada would split the tab 50-50 for their side.

But some members of the joint transportation committee, including state Sen. Burton Leland (D-Detroit), have balked at the $200 million price tag MDOT puts on the state's share of the new crossing.

"We need that money to deal with the existing infrastructure," Leland says.

MDOT spokesperson Bill Shreck the money would be reimbursed from tolls collected at the crossing.

Taylor, the Grand Valley State professor who has studied the issue, says there may be a plausible middle ground. An agreement could be reached, he explains, where the private sector could build the crossing, own and operate it for some years, and then transfer it to the government.

"You get the private money to create it, but at the end of, say, 30 years, the government has control of it. But even if it's private, there needs to be some government oversight over it."

Alghurabi at MDOT says the Bi-National Partnership is open to exploring finance options, but is determined that government not relinquish authority.

"We haven't ruled out a public-private partnership," he says. "But we are very interested in public oversight."

Private interests

One person who believes a publicly funded second crossing is a waste of taxpayer money is Matty Moroun.

"All of us only have so much in resources, even the federal government," he told the Windsor Star in January. "They need to spend those where they can do the most good for the most people. That should be everybody's motto."

That comment came two months after the Bi-National Partnership struck the proposed twin span for the Ambassador Bridge off its list of options.

"When we're looking at this sort of border situation, there is a great need for redundancy," says Mark Butler, spokesperson for the federal agency Transport Canada. "If there were an environmental accident or even a car accident at a twinned bridge, you would be closing down two crossings into the area instead of just one. Or even if there were a problem with the inspection plaza — a security problem or union difficulties — the two bridges might be functioning, but that plaza problem would cause the whole border crossing to close."

But just because the governments didn't accept the company's plan doesn't mean that Moroun has scrapped it. Last March, the company applied to the U.S. Coast Guard for the environmental permit necessary to build another bridge. A Coast Guard spokesman says the approval process could take up to three years.

Bridge company president Dan Stamper told Metro Times a privately owned second span of the Ambassador would be much preferred to a government project.

"We already own all the property to do what we want to do," he says. "Is it right [for the partnership] to move west and dislodge homes, promise these people a new lifestyle, and not have the money to do that?"

Oddly, consultants working for the DIBC have used a different argument, saying a second span isn't needed at all. In a March 16 editorial that appeared in The Detroit News, Gary Wolfram and Craig Ruff, both consultants for Moroun's company, called the governments' plans for a new bridge "ill advised," saying that "we seriously doubt there is any impending need for additional bridge capacity."

Apparently ignoring the opinions of its own consultants, DIBC management says it's not only willing to add more capacity to the Ambassador, it's also ready to start. Stamper says the company has already spent $400 million buying properties around the bridge, and has the $500 million he says it will cost to build the twin span. Construction could start within months of the Coast Guard issuing a permit, he estimates, well before the partnership's estimated construction start date of 2013. He adds that the company holds a Presidential Permit, a license issued by the federal government to entities seeking to build international crossings. The Presidential Permit, Stamper says, allows it to forgo most of the other permits normally associated with maintaining an old international span or constructing a new one.

But State Department spokesman Eric Watnik says that's not the case.

"As a Congressional authorized crossing, the Ambassador Bridge does not have, nor require, a Presidential Permit for the crossing or for any related infrastructure, such as a second span at that location," he says. "Congressional authorization of the bridge, however, does not relieve the owner of the obligation to obtain any other authorization and permits that may be necessary."

Stamper also told the Michigan Legislature's transportation committees, "no new permits would be required" from the Canadian government.

But Kaarina Stiff, environmental assessment project manager for Transport Canada, a branch of the Canadian federal government, says that's not true.

"I would disagree with Mr. Stamper's suggestions," she told Metro Times. "I feel that there will be permit requirements on the Canadian side, but we need more time to decide exactly what will be needed."

The bridge company isn't the only entity calling for the dismissal of the DRIC study. Members of Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick's administration have also become more vocal in demanding that the study be dropped.

The ties between Moroun's companies and the Kilpatrick administration run deep. The Detroit Free Press reported documents filed with the he Michigan Department of State show the transportation magnate, his family and DIBC President Dan Stamper gave $30,000 to the mayor's Generations PAC in the days leading up to the last mayoral election. Metro Times found that Moroun's family members and the top executives at his companies contributed at least another $20,000 directly to Kilpatrick's 2005 re-election campaign committee.

Critics say the administration has backed Moroun's business interests to an alarming extent. In March 2004, Kilpatrick proposed the city spend up to $130 million to buy Michigan Central Station on Michigan Avenue from one of Moroun's companies and turn it into a new police headquarters. Moroun, said to be the second-largest landowner in the state, had only acquired the decrepit train station six months earlier. Few people know how much profit he'd have seen in the deal, since city records don't record how much he paid for it. (The mayor later dropped the proposal.)

Last November, Kilpatrick planned to hand control of the Detroit side of Detroit-Windsor Tunnel to Moroun's Ambassador Port Company, giving the billionaire a monopoly on the region's major border crossings. Public outcry forced Kilpatrick to retract the deal soon after it was announced.

In a Feb. 3 letter to Granholm, Mayor Kilpatrick again backed Moroun's interests. In the letter, a copy of which was obtained by Metro Times, he asked that Lansing join his administration in condemning the DRIC study. He wrote that the real cause for backups at the border was Windsor's inefficient roadways, long considered a problem for truckers who have to navigate surface roads from the end of Canada's Highway 401 through downtown Windsor to reach the border.

"Now MDOT, burdened by a border study out of our control, exacerbates the threat to the economic vitality of Detroit by dictating an untimely, unneeded and unwanted border crossing distant from the heart of Michigan's most important city," the letter reads. "Together, we need to call upon Windsor and Ontario to do what Detroit and Michigan have long ago accomplished; fix the roads to the current border."

Soon after, Deputy Mayor Anthony Adams jumped on a chartered jet to attend a public hearing held in Lansing on the DRIC study.

Calling the study flawed, Adams told the members of the state House and Senate transportation committees that MDOT didn't sufficiently communicate with Detroit officials and said that a new bridge would be superfluous in the face of the Gateway Project, an ongoing venture to connect the Ambassador Bridge plaza directly to I-75 and I-96.

When state Sen. Ray Basham (D-Taylor) asked him how many of the public meetings with Delray residents he personally attended, Adams had to admit the answer: none. But, he added, mayoral representatives had attended two or three of the 23 DRIC meetings held in southwest Detroit.

"I've read some of the reports," Adams tells Metro Times. "Frankly, we don't think they've made the case for another crossing. Everything we've seen suggests that we have enough capacity at the crossings that we have." 

Asked if that extends to the proposed twinning of the Amabassador, Adams says he couldn't comment. 

"We've heard about it," he says. "But the DIBC hasn't officially presented that plan to us. We haven't taken a position on it."

Nagy was furious with the deputy mayor's actions. He sent a letter to the governor and Kilpatrick, complaining that the stance taken by the administration wasn't in line with the wishes of Delray residents. He also wrote that during a boat tour organized by MDOT in September 2005, one that passed all the sites considered for a new crossing, Adams "slept" and "gave no mind to gaining information."

Certain members of Detroit City Council were also concerned by Adams' testimony to the committee. Councilmember Sheila Cockrel says the mayor's office shouldn't try to kill the study.

"That's not a stand the mayor of Detroit should take," she says. "City leadership should understand that it is not our responsibility to push the bridge company's agenda. They're superb at doing that themselves."

The actions of the mayor and deputy mayor were also in direct conflict with the city's Planning Commission. In a March 29 letter to the state House and Senate's transportation committees, the commission's chair and deputy director lent its support to the study.

"The City Planning Commission finds the process employed by the DRIC to be fair, open and comprehensive," they wrote. "[We] urge the state Legislature to continue its support of the study and see it through to completion."

Promises of a better life

Stamper may doubt whether MDOT could keep its promises of community development for Delray, but others, including Karen Kavanaugh of the Southwest Detroit Business Association, are more optimistic. As MDOT continued work on the Gateway Development Project, Kavanaugh and others started negotiating a Community Benefits Agreement, a contract that legally binds the state to bring investment to the areas affected by the project. She wouldn't describe what was in the agreement, saying the details were still being finalized, but did say she was satisfied with MDOT's commitment to the community.

"This is a very serious initiative that we've spent a whole lot of time on," she says. "We took something that would have done a lot of damage to our community and turned it around to make it a win-win situation."

Delray is hoping for the same treatment, Nagy says. Members of his Delray Community Council are working with MDOT to solidify a benefits agreement for the neighborhood by next summer. No such negotiations are going on with the DIBC, he says.

And it's not just the people who plan on sticking around to see a completed bridge who prefer to work with MDOT. Nagy says many of his neighbors are feeling optimistic about the state's pledge to pay fair-market value for any property it requires to build the bridge. No one else wants to buy their properties, neighbors tell him, and the money they receive from the sale could finally enable them to leave for greener pastures.

"They tell me, 'Look, I want to get out of here," he says. "'We want a better quality of life.'"

And for Nagy, that's what a public bridge project promises. Driving his SUV past the husks of burned-out houses and factories, he says he dreams of the government cleaning or paving over the contaminated soil, giving some residents a ticket out and helping develop the neighborhood for those who remain.

"Hopefully," he says, "this will be a new day for Delray."

Ben Lefebvre is a Metro Times staff writer. Send comments to [email protected], or call