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Ottawa’s plan for bridge to Detroit on track after Michigan defeats proposal

The Ambassador Bridge spans the Detroit River dividing Canada and the U.S., is shown on Friday June 15, 2012. A long-awaited new bridge at Canada's busiest border crossing will ease traffic gridlock and encourage trade.

Mark Spowart/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The Canadian government's plan to build and pay for a new bridge across the Detroit River cleared a hurdle when Michigan voters effectively put their stamp of approval on it Tuesday.

Michiganders defeated a proposal that would have amended the state's constitution to require a statewide vote before any government money is spent to construct, finance, buy land or promote a new international bridge or tunnel. With almost all precincts reporting, the vote was 60 per cent against.

The proposal, sponsored and financed by Manuel (Matty) Moroun, who owns the existing Ambassador Bridge, was aimed directly at putting up obstacles to Ottawa's estimated $4-billion New International Trade Crossing. The federal government has offered to pay for the entire project – covering Michigan's $550-million cost – a development that would end Mr. Moroun's monopoly at the Detroit-Windsor, Ont., crossing.

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Federal Transport Minister Denis Lebel was visibly thrilled by the results of Thursday's vote, saying it now clears the way for the bridge to go ahead.

"We're very, very happy with the results," he said.

The minister said the next step is for President Barack Obama to approve a "presidential permit." Until that happens, Mr. Lebel said he can't provide a clear timeline as to when the bridge will be built.

"As soon as possible," he answered when pressed for an estimate by reporters on Parliament Hill.

The new bridge was backed by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, who campaigned feverishly against the proposal, often accompanied by Roy Norton, Canada's consul-general in Detroit, who condemned what he called lies in advertising by Mr. Moroun's camp.

The Detroit-Windsor crossing is the busiest and most valuable trade link in the world. About $120-billion worth of goods traverse it annually, or about one-quarter of the Canada-U.S. trade in goods.

It is a particularly vital artery for the auto industry. Auto parts and finished vehicles go both ways every hour, and the auto industry has been clamouring for a way to bypass the Ambassador Bridge and the border gridlock for almost a decade.

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The vote against the Moroun proposal and in favour of a new bridge was cheered by the Automotive Parts Manufacturers Association of Canada, which represents such large Canadian companies as Linamar Corp., Magna International Inc., and Martinrea International Inc.

The vote against the proposal "simply reaffirms our position that the people of Michigan truly understood the strong economic value that a new bridge represents for the state, including the creation of jobs and economic prosperity," said Steve Rodgers, president of the APMA.

That is not likely to be the end of the battle, however.

Mr. Moroun, who spent $32-million (U.S.) supporting the proposal, has also shown an eagerness to file lawsuits to protect his interests.

"You don't spend tens of millions of dollars to shape the state constitution only to roll over if you lose," said John Clark, chairman of the political science department of Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Mich.

Any delays work in favour of Mr. Moroun and his family, Prof. Clark noted, because it will extend their monopoly, even if only temporarily.

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With Bill Curry

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About the Author
Auto and Steel Industry Reporter

Greg Keenan has covered the automotive and steel industries for The Globe and Mail since 1995. He also writes about broader manufacturing trends. He is a graduate of the University of Toronto and of the University of Western Ontario School of Journalism. More

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