DETROIT — The big topic of the Nov. 13 meeting between the state's Department of Environmental Quality and the Detroit International Bridge Company wasn't a bridge as one might expect, but rather a bus.
The purpose of the DEQ hearing was to hear residents' comments about how the DIBC project would affect the quality of water, wetlands and wildlife before reissuing the company a construction permit. They first received the permit for the Ambassador Bridge Enhancement Project five years ago, but it expired in 2012.
If built, the bridge would be a six-lane, 6,200 foot-long span constructed next to the existing span, which was built in 1929. It would also be the DIBC's second privately owned bridge. Under the Enhancement Project, the original bridge would be closed upon the completion of the new span for infrastructure evaluation.
The DIBC span in question is separate from the Detroit River International Crossing, a publicly owned bridge proposed by the State of Michigan, Detroit and Canada, to be built in the Delray neighborhood about a mile away from the existing bridge.
Two dozen residents voiced their opinions both for and against the DIBC project. Those who were in support of the project said it would create jobs for Detroiters. Other supporters said they didn't think the government could complete the DRIC project within a budget. Others still said the construction of a new privately owned bridge would give Michigan faster access to toll revenues.
The DIBC, while paying taxes on the bridge and its property, does not share revenues with the city or the state.
State Representative, Rashida Tlaib, a democrat from Detroit's southwest area, said even though the DIBC claims to own all the land for the project, it's simply not true. She said the DEQ has to address more questions and they should deny a permit to the Bridge Company.
While the DIBC claims to have the property necessary to build another bridge, they do not own Riverside Park, which would be a crucial piece of land for the new span. Bridge Company owner, Manuel "Matty" Maroun, illegally seized a portion of the park on Detroit's southwest side after Sept. 11 2001. He was taken to court by the city in 2008, but due to stall tactics, has yet to relinquish full control of the land back to the city.
Tlaib also said the project didn't have clearance from federal environmental agencies and the U.S. Coast Guard has put a hold on building permits because they said the project might be in violation of the National Environmental Protection Act.
"I don't know why we're trying to repermit again right now," she said.
Another detractor to the project said he didn't support the DIBC span simply because the company has not been a good "corporate citizen."
Maroun and DIBC President Dan Stamper, who was also at the meeting, were taken into custody earlier this year for failing to complete their portion of the Gateway Project as approved by the Michigan Department of Transportation.
Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Prentis Edwards ruled March 8 that MDOT would take over final construction of the Gateway Project, which was initiated to ease traffic flow across the Ambassador Bridge, with Maroun's DIBC paying the estimated $16 million bill. The DIBC was also ordered to deconstruct the portion of the new span they had built, which some call the "ramp to nowhere," to make way for dedicated truck lanes.
Maroun and the DIBC recently spent a reported $33 million dollars backing state proposals 5 and 6 on the November presidential ticket, which were both denied by Michigan voters. Passage of Proposal 6 would have required voters to approve taxes and spending on the publicly funded bridges, including the DRIC project.
Michigan officials said the DRIC project would be paid for up front by Canada and repaid through toll revenue over the next 50 years.
Outside the meeting, in the halls of Western International High School in southwest Detroit, a heated argument brewed between supporters and detractors of the Enhancement Project.
Detractors of the Enhancement Project accused supporters who testified before the DEQ in favor of the DIBC of being hired by Maroun, which supporters denied.
The most vocal of the DIBC supporters was Skip Mongo, the brother of a longtime Maroun consultant Adolph Mongo, who led a 2009 recall campaign against Tlaib.
After the meeting, many of the DIBC supporters, including the ones accused of working for Maroun, boarded a charter bus and waived goodbye to onlookers.
Andrew Hartz, district supervisor for the DEQ's water resources division, said the department could take up to a few weeks to decide on the permit.
Who knows what will happen from there. Stay tuned.