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MDOT-Moroun showdown looms over land needed for bridge

By August 20, 2016No Comments

John Gallagher/The Detroit Free Press – A potential showdown could flare soon between Ambassador Bridge owner Manuel (Matty) Moroun and the State of Michigan over land in southwest Detroit needed for the Gordie Howe International Bridge.

Should Moroun resist selling land he owns for the rival bridge, the Michigan Department of Transportation could go to court and take it under eminent-domain power.

A lengthy court fight would likely ensue over the final price, a fight that could stretch for years. But that wouldn’t prevent the state from seizing the land in the meantime and starting construction. Under state law, MDOT can take land for public projects and battle later in court over the price.

Canadian officials in charge of the Gordie Howe bridge say it could be ready by the end of 2020. But recent delays call that into question, including what appears to many as the slower pace of land acquisition on the Detroit side.

Dwight Duncan, the Canadian official who serves as interim chair of the Windsor-Detroit Bridge Authority, recently blamed “30 problematic properties” in southwest Detroit for holding up the project.

That includes land owned by Moroun, a vociferous opponent of the new bridge because it will draw business away from his privately owned Ambassador Bridge.

Moroun owns the former Yellow Freight truck yard, a 42-acre site at 7701 W. Jefferson that is in the path of the Gordie Howe bridge project. The ramps to and from the bridge would cross directly over a portion of Moroun’s property there.

Moroun can’t delay indefinitely through legal maneuvers, though he could probably make things complicated for awhile.

A spokesman for Moroun said there has been no activity yet involving the land in southwest Detroit.

Alan Ackerman, a longtime attorney who represents property owners facing eminent domain actions, represents several owners in Delray, but not Moroun. He estimates that it takes about 18 months to settle eminent-domain cases. But it can take as little as eight months or as long as five years.

Taking residential properties is easier than commercial because some businesses have to find a new place to operate, he said.

The residential properties also are easier to take because many Delray residents already have said they would be happy to take the government’s offer to buy them out.

Preliminary progress

Andy Doctoroff, Gov. Rick Snyder’s point man on the bridge, said significant preliminary work has been under way for some time, and that good-faith offers have already been made to a majority of the estimated 673 parcels in the Delray neighborhood needed for the project. The state estimates it will cost about $370 million to buy all the land for the Detroit bridge approaches, U.S. Customs and Border Protection inspection plaza, and connections to I-75.

And all other appraisals on all involved parcels are either completed or under way, a necessary step before the state can make purchase offers to property owners, Doctoroff said.

“Within the near term, all good-faith offers will have been made,” Doctoroff said last week, predicting “within the next few months.”

In carefully worded language, Doctoroff predicted that Detroit land acquisition likely won’t be an impediment because construction happens in stages.

Construction proposals coming soon

On the Windsor side of the river, Duncan has issued similar assurances that the project, while taking longer than expected to launch, should soon see significant progress.

Duncan said the request for proposals that will go out soon to three teams vying to build the bridge. Delays in issuing the RFP, which initially was promised late last year, has led to speculation about reasons for the delay.

Officials on both sides blame the complexity of the project, which costs more than $2 billion and involves governments in two nations with different sets of laws.

But officials say the seeming delays mask real progress that has been made.

“Our land acquisition team at MDOT is committed, sophisticated, it’s robust, and it’s spending a lot of time serving the interests of the project because this is a benefit to the entire region in a major way,” Doctoroff said. “There are a lot of people doing a lot of great work on land acquisition.”

No doubt fans of the project will continue to fret and worry until they see construction rising against the skyline. That will take at least another couple of years, though, so until then, or until Canada issues the RFP and MDOT moves publicly to take all the land it needs in Delray, conspiracy theorists will continue to suggest that all is not well.