Judge voids last count in Moroun lawsuit against feds
Todd Spangler, Detroit Free PressJune 21, 2016
WASHINGTON – With little fanfare and no notice, a federal judge in the nation’s capitaldismissed the last of several complaints in a lawsuit first filed more than six years ago by Ambassador Bridge owner Manuel (Matty) Moroun and his family in an attempt to block a rival Detroit River span.
The ruling by U.S. District Judge Rosemary Collyer may not be the last word on the lawsuit — Moroun’s Detroit International Bridge Co. could attempt an appeal to a higher court to try to stop the Gordie Howe International Bridge — but it still may mark an end to a long chapter in the fight.
“This is great news, and the (new) bridge construction can continue to move forward. This is another one of those Moroun lawsuits trying to delay the process, and it hasn’t worked,” said Tom Shields, a Lansing consultant who had represented the businesses and other groups supporting the new bridge.
Faced with requests from both sides to settle the remaining count on a once-lengthy complaint raised by the Bridge Co., Collyer determined that Moroun’s lawyers had no valid challenge to the U.S. State Department’s approval in 2013 of an agreement between the state of Michigan and Canada to build the new bridge.
Moroun’s legal team argued the so-called crossing agreement was illegal under Michigan law and should not have been approved by the State Department. But Collyer found that the State Department was only required to look at the federal policy and security questions in deciding on whether to approve a new international span — not its legality under a specific state’s law.
Gov. Rick Snyder, who has pursued the new bridge since entering office in 2011, has long maintained that the crossing agreement was legal, even as Moroun’s supporters complained that no such agreement had ever been approved by the state Legislature as they believed it should have been. A referendum to require a statewide vote before moving on any international bridge in 2012 failed.
“The court offers no opinion as to whether the crossing agreement was lawfully executed under Michigan law,” Collyer wrote. “Ultimately, (the remaining complaint) challenges the approval of the crossing agreement by (the State Department), and the court cannot say that the agency’s decision to rely on the opinions of the office of the governor and the attorney general … was arbitrary.”
Officials with the Bridge Co. did not immediately respond to a request for comment from the Free Press. But whether or not the Moroun-controlled company that owns the 86-year-old Ambassador Bridge relents on the federal case, it still has other legal efforts under way in Canada to stall construction of the new bridge or allow for a second span of its own bridge to be built.
Opponents across the Detroit River in Windsor, however, have been steadfast in wanting to stop a second span of the Ambassador Bridge. While it’s not clear when the Gordie Howe Bridge will be completed, Canadian officials have said they plan to ask for submission of bids in the near term.
Moroun’s lawsuit in federal court in Washington got under way in 2010, but back then was largely confined to efforts to get Coast Guard approval for a second span, arguing that the agency had wrongly denied that approval based on questions regarding air rights over Detroit’s Riverside Park.
A decision on that count, in the Coast Guard’s favor, was appealed by the Bridge Co. but the appeal became moot earlier this year when the Coast Guard granted the permit after the City of Detroit and the Bridge Co. came to terms over use of the park. Still, Moroun needs Canadian approval to build a second span.
The lawsuit in Washington in the years after its filing became far larger, with complaints being leveled at several federal agencies and accusations being made that officials were wrongly holding up a second Ambassador Bridge span while giving the new Canadian government-funded bridge all the support it needed. Moroun at one point even claimed an exclusive franchise to operating a bridge over the river.
In May 2014, Matthew Moroun, Matty Moroun’s son and vice chairman of the Bridge Co., told Collyer in court that if the new bridge got its approvals and permits before the Ambassador Bridge operators did, it was “the end of the race,” because a new bridge would eat up 75% of the old bridge’s truck traffic.
Collyer last year tossed virtually all of the rest of the counts in the complaint, saying that the Bridge Co. lawyers "overplay their hand" by suggesting, absent a specific statute or mention in the act of Congress that approved the original bridge, "an exclusive bridge franchise which the federal government cannot interfere (with) in perpetuity."
"The DIBC (Detroit International Bridge Co.) Act contains no express or implied grant of exclusivity or perpetuity," she wrote at the time.