Michigan sues private company over bridge construction

Vehicles enter the United States from Canada across the Ambassador Bridge at a U.S. Customs port of entry December 13, 2004 in Detroit, Mich.

Steve Chiotakis: A judge in Detroit tomorrow is expected to rule on a dispute involving the Ambassador Bridge. That's the privately-owned span that connects Detroit to Windsor, Ontario in Canada. It's the busiest international trade crossing in North America. And the two-year old case highlights a big clash between the private sector and government.

Reporter Sarah Hulett has more.


Sarah Hulett: On a recent day in Detroit, motorist Jessica Irvine has just wound her way past orange barrels and temporary signs to duty-free gas pumps at the foot of the Ambassador Bridge.

Jessica Irvine: It's kind of confusing. It's a little bit of a mess right now.

The mess inside the plaza is the result, in part, of a dispute between the company that owns the bridge, and the state. One of the issues is the bank of gas pumps where Irvine is fueling up.

Tony Kratofil is an engineer for the Michigan Department of Transportation. He says the bridge company ignored plans that would have routed traffic past its lucrative duty-free store and gas station. Instead, travelers like Irvine are directed right through it.

Tony Kratofil: You could see if there was a lot of traffic on a holiday weekend or something, you've got people backed up in there waiting to get gas, it's going to interfere with the flow of traffic trying to get back to the freeway.

The state and the bridge company are each responsible for a share of a $230 million construction project, which is meant to better connect the bridge and the interstate freeways on the Michigan side. The state sued the bridge company in 2009 to force it to comply with the design the two sides agreed to. A judge ruled in the state's favor, and in January, the bridge company's president was briefly held in jail for refusing to comply with the judge's order.

Now, nearly half a year later, the state is asking for fines of $100,000 a day until the bridge company complies.

Company officials declined an interview request. But its president Dan Stamper told reporters last month he's ready to put the litigation behind him.

Dan Stamper: Even though we disagree with MDOT on some of the aspects of the project, we'll complete our construction before January 12, 2012, as ordered by the court.

Stamper says the company is moving toll booths that were not in compliance with the plan, and is deeding over land the state needs to complete a ramp. He'll find out tomorrow whether that's enough to satisfy a judge who's presided over two years of hearings on the company's non-compliance.

In Detroit, I'm Sarah Hulett for Marketplace.

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