By Jeff T. Wattrick
Occupy Detroit joined southwest Detroit residents Thursday to protest the Ambassador Bridge’s failure to complete the Gateway Project as ordered by a judge.
Protesters blocked Fort St. traffic to the bridge for nearly an hour Thursday afternoon to call attention to the hazards posed by international truck traffic on local roads. The Gateway Project—which cost Michigan taxpayers $230 million—was supposed to alleviate the problem by creating direct connections between freeways and the bridge.
However, MDOT and local residents say the Ambassador Bridge, owned by Matty Moroun’s Detroit International Bridge Company, failed to complete its portion of the public-private partnership, forcing trucks to remain on service streets in route to the bridge.
Earlier this year, DIBC President Dan Stamper was briefly jailed for contempt of court by Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Prentis Edwards because the DIBC refused to follow court orders relating the Gateway Project.
“The arrangement was this, we will temporarily allow you that northern lane [on Fort St.],” said Hubbard Farms’ resident Deb Sumner, as she points to concrete barriers separating lanes of traffic for bridge-bound vehicles. “Once Gateway is done and you build your direct connections then we go back to normal. But, oh no! The judge even ordered him to build what you’re supposed to build—direct connections.”
Protesters successfully prevented trucks from accessing the bridge by physically blocking access to the road from an Ambassador Bridge toll plaza.
Police and Homeland Security officers on the scene did not arrest protesters, who promised from the beginning that their demonstration, which began around 5:15, would end promptly at 6:00 PM.
“They have the right to protest,” Detroit Deputy Police Chief James Tolbert said at the scene. “We’re working with them to keep everyone safe and get these trucks moving when we can.”
The idea that demonstrators had the right to protest, even if it meant blocking traffic, found support in unexpected places.
Joe Dear spent the entire protest sitting in his rig, waiting to get moving again. Dear said that while the demonstration was an inconvenience and that he doesn’t support the plan for a second Detroit-Windsor border crossing, he didn’t object to the protest.
“They’ve got their rights,” he said.
Standing just a couple feet in front of Dear’s truck was Bill Johnson and his dog.
“People have to live with this every day. This is wrong,” Johnson said. “What do you do when something is wrong? You do this.”
At one point, a legal observer from the National Lawyers Guild asked Johnson if he had made arrangements for his pet in case he was arrested or injured. He had not, and a Guild lawyer volunteered to care for the dog if necessary.
Obviously, standing in front of a rig is a risky proposition, but Johnson said he didn’t believe he was in any real danger.
“He’s got a friendly face,” Johnson said of the driver he was staring down. “You know, this isn’t risky. He’s not going to run me over.”
In fact, the protesters actually found a surprisingly sympathetic audience among the truckers they were blocking. Except for one driver with an artfully raised finger, the response from drivers was overwhelmingly positive. At 6:00 PM, as the protest ceded the road and rigs began moving, truckers sounded their horns and gave thumbs up in apparent support as they passed by the dispersing protesters.
“I’ve talked to truckers,” said state Rep. Rashida Tlaib, who joined with her constituents to block the road. “They want the ramps too. They don’t want to have to go through our community every single day. It takes them an extra 15 minutes to get to the highways. Their jobs are on the line. They want those ramps built as much as we do.”
Judge Edwards is expected to make another ruling on the Gateway controversy November 3. The Michigan Department of Transportation said yesterday they’ll ask for a special receiver to be appointed to complete the project.