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Ottawa girds for legal battle over new Windsor-Detroit bridge

Vehicles cross the Ambassador Bridge from Windsor to Detroit on June 1, 2009.

The Canadian government is considering the extraordinary step of using an act of Parliament to shield the new Windsor-Detroit bridge project from lawsuits launched by owners of an existing crossing.

Canada and the United States last week signalled a new era of co-operation on their joint border with a deal on perimeter security, but the agreement unveiled was light on details of how much new crossing infrastructure would be built to expedite two-way trade.

Continuing opposition to a second bridge between Windsor and Detroit threatens to bog down what may be the most important infrastructure upgrade in the works.

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The State of Michigan's efforts to secure legislative approval for the project stalled this fall over local politics, but Governor Rick Snyder vowed during a recent visit to Ottawa that he's determined to push it through in the months ahead.

Briefing notes prepared for Transport Minister Denis Lebel when he assumed his post last May show his department feels the New International Trade Crossing project may require legislative protection from Ottawa to prevent further delay in Canada.

There is no greater conduit for Canada-U.S. trade than the link between Detroit and Windsor. The thousands of trucks that cross the Ambassador Bridge each day carry about 25 per cent of the annual merchandise trade between Canada and the United States.

Canada has been pushing to build an additional crossing for more than seven years to ease bottlenecks in cross-border traffic and meet future demand. It's even offered to pay Michigan's $550-million share of the new bridge, which would later be repaid from toll revenue.

The operators of the privately owned Ambassador Bridge, however, have waged a public campaign against the project, even using TV ads to raise questions in Michigan voters' minds about the rationale for a government-backed second crossing. They say there's insufficient traffic for two bridges and have launched multiple legal challenges in Canada and the United States.

Ottawa worries the Ambassador Bridge operators will make further attempts to frustrate the project, which until recently was called the Detroit River International Crossing (DRIC).

"There is a risk that the legal challenges launched by the Ambassador Bridge could delay the DRIC project or, in the worst case, they could prevent the project from proceeding," briefing notes for Mr. Lebel say.

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"While Transport Canada is vigorously defending these challenges, the DRIC project may incur further risks, including additional legal challenges by the Ambassador Bridge as permits are issued under various federal acts," the briefing notes say.

"To avoid further delays to the project, Transport Canada is actively examining, with other departments, the option of an act of Parliament to enable the construction of the DRIC and to exempt the project from specific laws under which permits or approvals are required to implement the project," the notes say.

"In essence, such an act could allow the project to proceed while quashing current legal challenges and preventing any future challenges to Canada."

A spokeswoman for Mr. Lebel said the briefing books that discussed the Detroit-Windsor bridge were prepared six months ago. She did not elaborate on the government's current thinking about using legislation to shield the new crossing project from Ambassador Bridge lawsuits.

"The department raised a lot of issues and raised a lot of suggestions," Vanessa Schneider, director of communications for Mr. Lebel, said of the briefing notes. "And moving forward we're committed to stay working on this file."

The Perimeter Security and Economic Competitiveness Action Plan unveiled by Stephen Harper and Barack Obama last week would involve a joint infrastructure investment plan that ensures both countries are apprised of each other's intentions to upgrade border crossings.

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Steven Chase has covered federal politics in Ottawa for The Globe since mid-2001, arriving there a few months before 9/11. He previously worked in the paper's Vancouver and Calgary bureaus. Prior to that, he reported on Alberta politics for the Calgary Herald and the Calgary Sun, and on national issues for Alberta Report. More

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