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Published: Friday, 6/8/2007

Detroit could get 2 new bridges


DETROIT - A new bridge could soon connect Detroit to Windsor - one of North America's busiest border crossings.

Who will own it and when exactly it will be built comes down to money and control.

With millions of dollars in fees and tolls at stake, the race for a new span pits the private Detroit International Bridge Co. against four public entities looking for a share of more than $40 million in estimated profits.

In the end, there could be two new bridges, much shorter wait times, and possibly lower toll fees for motorists.

The bridge company already has started preliminary work. It says the 78-year-old Ambassador Bridge costs too much to maintain and wants to close it to daily car and truck traffic in about three years, when it expects it would open a "twin" over the Detroit River.

Potentially standing in the way are Transport Canada, the Ontario Ministry of Transportation, U.S. Federal Highways Administration, and Michigan Department of Transportation. They are partners in the Detroit River International Crossing (DRIC) study and want to build their own bridge by 2013.

With 16 million cars, trucks, and buses going back and forth each year, the Detroit-Windsor border handles more traffic than any other crossing between the U.S. and Canada.

An estimated $347 billion - about 23 percent - of the total surface trade between the two countries used the Ambassador Bridge and Detroit-Windsor Tunnel in 2001. Each weekday, $300 million in goods was trucked in both directions across the bridge, according to the DRIC group, which released a final report in 2004.

The study concluded the tunnel and Ambassador Bridge will be at or near capacity within 10 to 15 years, and that by 2030 at least four more lanes will be needed to handle increased car and truck traffic.

Bridge company president Dan Stamper says 9.4 million vehicles, including 3.5 million trucks, crossed the Ambassador Bridge last year, but he doesn't think it will reach capacity that quickly. Bridge traffic peaked in 1998 at almost 13 million vehicles. It has declined nearly each year since.

The bridge company, owned by Grosse Pointe businessman Manuel Moroun, doesn't report its profits, but the public entities that want to build a bridge clearly think it's worthwhile.

"[Our] new bridge may, in fact, take away some of the traffic from the Ambassador Bridge," said Mark Butler, spokesman for Transport Canada, that country's federal transportation arm.

Mr. Stamper says his new span will rise 100 feet southwest of the Ambassador Bridge. Construction on a new plaza and six inspection booths on the Canadian side is almost complete.

The price tag for the new bridge and necessary roadwork is expected to reach $1 billion, with $500 million already spent in land acquisition, environmental testing, and study.

Mr. Stamper says he has approval from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to begin work. He hopes to soon get the OK from the U.S. Coast Guard.

But approval is needed from Transport Canada and the Windsor Port Authority.

Mr. Butler says his group has to go through the same procedures. The group is looking at three sites in Windsor. Crews are drilling into bedrock along the riverbank to make sure the sites can support the bridge's weight.

"The governments of both countries have supported the DRIC process," Mr. Butler said. "But we have to be open and transparent, and see how [Mr. Stamper's] independent bridge proposal goes ahead."

It's possible that both sides could get approval to build bridges.

Mr. Butler says the cost of the DRIC group's bridge also would approach $1 billion. The group may look to the private sector to build it.

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