John Gallagher/The Detroit Free Press – The Moroun family that owns the Ambassador Bridge could soon launch a few legal Hail Marys to try to block or delay the rival Gordie Howe International Bridge — including possibly arguing that the Michigan Constitution prohibits using eminent domain to seize private property for a Canada-led project.
The Moroun family business, which owns land in the path of the new bridge in the Delray neighborhood, has multiple legal strategies it could present. It could argue broadly about problems with eminent domain or try to delay MDOT’s seizure of the family’s Delray land, where they run a trucking operation.
John Mogk, longtime professor of development law at Wayne State University, said that under Article X, Section 2 of the Michigan Constitution, Michigan governments can take land under eminent domain for a “public use.” Transferring private property to the Windsor-Detroit Bridge Authority, an entity set up by Canada’s government to manage the bridge project, arguably might not fit the definition of a Michigan public use, he said.
“This is a stretch. I’m not saying if I were on the bench I’d agree with this,” Mogk said, explaining that it was just one potential argument the Morouns might raise. MDOT, he said, could counter that the bridge will be half owned by Michigan and therefore the project fits the definition of a public use.
Matthew Moroun, son of family patriarch Manuel (Matty) Moroun, said this week his family’s bridge company would continue to fight the Gordie Howe Bridge, though he declined to reveal any specific legal strategies.
“We never intended to give up our property without a fight,” he told the Free Press this week. “If they throw a punch we’re going to hold up our hands and defend ourselves.”
For example, the Morouns might contend that moving the trucking operation the family owns in the Delray neighborhood that sits in the path of the planned bridge would be so costly that it would take far longer than currently estimated by the state, ensuring more delays.
Every day the rival bridge is delayed means more business for the Ambassador, which is the only above-ground crossing between Windsor and Detroit. The tunnel under the Detroit River is not suited for truck traffic, so quite often the Ambassador is the only game in town for international truckers and cargo.
The Morouns, who have fought the Gordie Howe project for many years with lawsuits in the U.S. and Canada, intend to go on battling.
Protecting their land in Delray against seizure by MDOT could be the latest strategy.
On that land, the Moroun family’s Central Transport operates a truck terminal on the 42-acre site at 7701 W. Jefferson. The approaches to the planned bridge must cross their land on the way to the U.S. Customs and Border Inspection plaza to the north. It took years for a bi-national study group to select the route and moving the planned bridge now could add years to the project.
On any given day, dozens of the company’s yellow Central Transport truck trailers are lined up at truck bays at the terminal, transferring shipments for customers such as Walmart. Uprooting that operation, if that is what MDOT determines is needed, would involved paying not only for buying the land but transferring the operation to a suitable new location.
The showdown over the terminal has been expected since 2010, when the Morouns purchased the site from another trucking concern and moved their operations there from Romulus. There has been open speculation ever since that the Morouns were placing their operation intentionally in the path of the future bridge project.
Public use or economic development?
Mogk said another potential Moroun argument might run like this: the Gordie Howe bridge project is less a public use than an economic development project, since planners tout the thousands of construction jobs and increased efficiency of cross-border trade.
That might prove a crucial distinction because a 2004 Michigan Supreme Court ruling known as Wayne County v. Hathcock bars governments in Michigan from taking land from one private owner and transferring it to another private owner just to stimulate economic growth.
Mogk said these were just possible lines of arguments. “The arguments are a bit stretched,” he said. “I’m not sure that they will prevail.”
But that may not be all. Alan Ackerman, a Bloomfield Hills-based attorney who represents property owners whose land is being taken by governments under eminent domain, cited a third possibility. The fate of a little-known industrial railroad line running alongside the Moroun truck terminal might create a legal roadblock.
The Delray Connecting Railroad Co. is operated by U.S. Steel to service its steel plant on nearby Zug Island.
MDOT cannot simply seize the land on which the railroad runs, Ackerman said, since railroads are regulated by the federal government, not state governments. If MDOT needs that land — and it’s not immediately clear that it does — it would have to petition the federal Surface Transportation Board to vacate the line first.
It’s also likely that various federal departments and agencies, including Homeland Security, would have to give permission for the railroad to continue to operate beneath the Gordie Howe Bridge. But when or if that decision might be made is not known.
Whatever legal arguments the Morouns offer, even if defeated in court as it has been in its other lawsuits, the family could profit by delaying the bridge project. Each year’s delay in opening the Gordie Howe Bridge means tens of millions of dollars in toll revenue for the Morouns’ Ambassador Bridge.
Andy Doctoroff, Gov. Rick Snyder’s point man for the Gordie Howe project, said late last week that MDOT, working with Canadian officials, believes that all the land needed for the project will be available in a timely fashion to not delay construction.
This week, MDOT released a brief statement declining to comment on the Morouns’ possible legal arguments.
“Legal disagreements are best discussed in court and not in media stories,” the statement said. “The State of Michigan is confident in its approach to this project, however, and will gladly explain that in court when appropriate.”