Delray seeks help in deal for new Detroit River bridge

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On a recent Tuesday night, several hundred residents crammed inside the Delray Community House on Leigh Street to talk about what the Detroit River International Crossing could mean for their neighborhood.

Homeowners, business people and community leaders have united in their quest for jobs, business investment, improved air quality and green zones in a gritty, hardscrabble area of Detroit that already houses the Rouge facility, water treatment plant, Detroit salt mines, a 300-acre train yard and the Ambassador Bridge.

“We want a bridge with benefits,” said state Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit, who rallied the group at the meeting.

But before any benefits can come their way, the people of Delray will have to wait for the Michigan Legislature’s vote by June 1 concerning the future of the DRIC.

A denial would leave the bridge dead in the water — at least for the remainder of the legislative session that ends Dec. 31 — while a yes vote would give the Michigan Department of Transportation the go-ahead to begin buying property in Delray.

“It’s going to be interesting to see how it unravels,” said Tlaib, when asked about the June 1 vote.

“An education process has to happen because not everyone has been following this, the pros and cons of the bridge. All we’re asking for is that no one try to block it; allow the legislators to make the decision.”

Tlaib’s comments were in reaction to an unusual March 24 vote by the House Appropriation’s Committee to block funding for the DRIC starting with the new fiscal year on Oct. 1.

The last-minute amendment was submitted by Rep. George Cushingberry, D-Detroit, and was approved by committee members who “didn’t know what they were voting on,” according to Tlaib.

“Once members thoroughly read the amendment we met the following day and reversed our vote,” Tlaib said.

Cushingberry could not be reached for comment.

Competing span hits snag

The proposal for the publicly owned second span from Detroit to Canada has received added attention lately, especially after a decision last month by the U.S. Coast Guard to halt a project by Ambassador Bridge owner Manuel “Matty” Moroun to build a second span to his bridge.

The USCG halted Moroun’s application process — which began over three years ago — based on a land dispute between Moroun and the city of Detroit over a portion of Riverside Park.

The Coast Guard, which is the lead authority on the proposed new span on the U.S. side of the border, said Moroun can resubmit his application once the legal dispute is resolved.

Dan Stamper, president of the Detroit International Bridge Co., which owns and operates the Ambassador Bridge, said the company remains committed to building its own second span.

In addition to the Coast Guard permit denial, Moroun’s company has faced more problems stemming from setbacks in the courts. In February the Wayne County Circuit Court ordered Moroun to demolish toll booths, fueling stations and a duty-free shop built in anticipation of a second span. Those facilities were built improperly and in some cases on land owned by the city of Detroit, the court has said.

Two weeks ago, the Michigan Court of Appeals upheld that lower court’s order, meaning the Detroit International Bridge Co. will have to decide whether to appeal to the highest court in the state or start removing those facilities built as part of the Gateway Project in southwest Detroit.

Phil Frame, a bridge company spokesman, said it was unclear whether Moroun’s company would file that appeal with the Michigan Supreme Court.

Proposal OK predicted

In Lansing, supporters of the public bridge say the Detroit River International Crossing is needed for the economic future of southeastern Michigan. Opponents say it’s unnecessary because of declining international car and truck traffic.

Rep. Lee Gonzales, D-Flint, predicts the $1.5 billion bridge proposal, with federal funds covering 80 percent of the cost, will be approved.

“We have to prepare for the future with a new bridge or more trade will go to Buffalo, N.Y.,” said Gonzales, chairman of the House Appropriation Subcommittee on Transportation.

Tlaib, who has championed a publicly owned span to reinvigorate southwest Detroit, said the Legislature’s self-imposed deadline to authorize the DRIC was incorporated to appease Senate Republicans in opposition to the project — but there’s nothing to keep future lawmakers from resurrecting the issue if it is rejected.

House Speaker Andy Dillon backs the DRIC saying, “We need to leverage funds to build the bridge and expand international commerce … to protect hundreds of thousands of Michigan jobs.”

Other proponents of the bridge include the U.S. and Canadian governments, President Barack Obama, Gov. Jennifer Granholm, Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, Windsor Mayor Eddie Francis, the Detroit Regional Chamber, SEMCOG and former governors James Blanchard and John Engler.

But Sen. Alan Cropsey, R-DeWitt, is an opponent of the bridge. He said the new span “has all the makings of a public sector boondoggle” and is predicting that the bridge proposal will fail by June 1.

Cropsey backs Moroun’s plan.

“The current bridge seems to be more than adequate and the owner is willing to fund a new one,” Cropsey said.

“Why spend money on the DRIC when roads are crumbling all over the state?”

Delray’s wish list

Along with members of the Community Benefits Coalition, Tlaib has given MDOT a wish list of concessions, including environmental improvements, business investments, job opportunities, infrastructure upgrades and perhaps a cut of DRIC tolls.

Some of the requests are workable, while others are out of the question, MDOT officials said.

“We don’t build houses and we don’t hire people directly,” said Bill Shreck, MDOT director of communications.

MDOT has agreed to rebuild portions of local roads, including Dearborn and West End avenues and Clark Street. It also will help fund a study on the economic development in the DRIC area and work with contractors to control air pollution during construction.

“We award contracts based on the lowest bid; it is up to the construction companies to hire their own workers,” Shreck said.

“We encourage them to hire locally, but ultimately it’s up to them.”

Shreck said there’s no chance of the city getting a cut of bridge fares.

“Public dollars have to remain public,” Shreck said.

“But the bridge will pay taxes to the city of Detroit, which can be used in Delray.”

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, the DRIC would force the removal of 257 homes, 43 businesses and nine nonprofit organizations. In a survey by MDOT, 40 percent of the homeowners who would be displaced have said they would like to remain in Delray.

“MDOT helped us secure nearly $2 million in federal funds to help displaced residents buy one of the 26 new homes that are to be built in Delray if the DRIC goes through,” said Tom Cervenak of Peoples United Services, a United Way group.

Meanwhile, Delray residents Shirley Cockrell and her husband Eddie sit and wait for a project that may not see a shovel for another one or two years.

They intend to apply for one of the new homes.

“Delray is my home and my comfort zone. But I’m tired after all the years of discussion; let’s move on and get it over with,” said 67-year-old Shirley Cockrell.

Source:The Detroit News/Tom Greenwood

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