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Suspicious Detroit Council puts demands on new Moroun bridge – that won't ever be built

Jul 16, 2015

There’s now no real doubt that the new Gordie Howe International Bridge over the Detroit River will become reality. There are still a few parcels of land to be assembled on the Detroit side, and site preparation work needs to be done.

The Canadians tell me they still think the bridge will be open to the public five years from now. However, this has not stopped Ambassador Bridge owner Matty Moroun from trying to twin or eventually replace his own bridge.

In fact, several years ago he seized a part of Riverside Park he would need to build a new bridge and posted phony “homeland security” signs. The city had to sue over that.

Then this spring, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan announced a startling deal. Detroit would give Moroun the three acres of the park he would need to build a new bridge.

But first, the Moroun family had to give the city a five-acre parcel of land it wants, give Detroit $5 million to improve the rest of the now rundown Riverside Park, and, finally, install more than a thousand new windows in the hulking wreck of the Michigan Central train station.

That would spruce up the city’s most notorious skyline eyesore. And Moroun doesn’t get his three acres unless and until he first lives up to his part of the bargain. This is a good deal for Detroit. But now the city council has serious reservations. This week, instead of approving the deal, several members demanded all sorts of conditions.

Scott Benson has a complicated formula to capture a portion of property taxes and use them to mitigate air and noise pollution. Raquel Castenada-Lopez, whose district includes the bridge, has a huge shopping list, including demands that the Moroun family provide a broad range of community benefits in return for being allowed to build a new bridge.

She also wants the city to be a part-owner of the bridge, and wants the city to not sell, but lease the land to them. Council eventually put off any decision until next week. Well, I am certainly sympathetic to their suspicions and concerns.

Matty Moroun has a long track record in Detroit as a user and a slumlord. Additionally, residents should certainly get community benefits from any new bridge.

But here’s what the council is missing: Don’t tell Moroun, but despite his fantasies, he is never going to be able to build a new bridge. Canada won’t let him. I’ve talked to important officials in their government. They distrust Moroun, but they would never let anyone build a second bridge there. There would be too much pollution, and it would make no sense from the traffic flow standpoint – the streets on both sides have frequent backups now.

Someday, it is conceivable, perhaps desirable, that someone will knock down the current 85-year-old bridge and replace it. But there won’t ever be two.

And if any new Ambassador Bridge were ever to be built, there would be a permit-getting process that would last years. That would be the time to demand community benefits.

I am anything but a fan of Matty Moroun. But I worry here that council, by not looking at the larger picture, may risk losing a good deal for the city.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.