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New bridge linking U.S., Canada on hold

State-run bridge over Detroit River remains a contentious topic for voters

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The momentum for a new bridge linking Detroit and Canada seems to be waning in Michigan, where the wealthy owner of a private span has waged a pricey public-relations war on television to sink it and a new public opinion poll released this week suggests a majority of voters oppose it.

A plan in the Michigan Legislature for the state to build its own bridge in addition to the one currently operated by multimillionaire businessman Manuel "Matty" Moroun, remains stuck in a state Senate committee, even as the states Republican governor says it remains one of his priority projects.

On Wednesday afternoon, the Senate Economic Development Committee was set to vote on the Detroit River International Crossing but the panel chairman abruptly canceled the hearing when a substitute bill, presented by one of the committees two Democratic members, was introduced at the last minute.

It added a community benefits provision for Detroit neighborhoods and residents whom the new construction likely would displace.

"I'm good and irritated right now," said Sen. Mike Kowall, White Lake Township Republican, in adjourning the packed committee meeting after it had convened for only a few minutes. Another hearing is set for Thursday as heated debate continues and the substitute bill is considered.

Gov. Rick Snyder, speaking Monday at the Great Lakes International Trade and Transport Hub Summit at Michigan State University, urged support for the $3.6 billion project, which enjoys support from unions and Detroit's major auto companies.

"I don't think there is any good reason not to support the bridge proposal," Mr. Snyder said, arguing that the project would strengthen economic ties between the U.S. and Canada.

But it's not a certainty that state lawmakers, even in a Republican-controlled legislature, will go along. While Republicans hold a majority over Democrats 5-2 in Senate Economic Development Committee, even their votes are not a sure thing.

"Its got a long road to go," Scott Hagerstrom, the Michigan director of Americans for Prosperty, said after Wednesdays abrupt committee hearing.

"I think leadership has to really ask themselves if this is needed and why now. There is no need to put taxpayers at risk. There is no need for a new bridge," he said, citing research showing that traffic on the current span is down 40 percent since 1999.

The bills, as proposed, would allow for construction of a new Detroit-to-Windsor bridge downriver from the current Ambassador Bridge. Although the state has struggled economically during a protracted recession, supporters of the new bridge argue that taxpayers won't have to shoulder the cost. The Canadian government has offered to cover the U.S.s $550 million cost to construct a plaza on the Detroit side, noting that the money can be recovered in bridge tolls.

But Mr. Hagerstrom and others say that there is no assurance that the state won't be on the hook to pay back that money, which he says is simply a loan from Canada with few specifics about repayment and interest. "Its not free money," he said. "I cant blame lawmakers for not wanting to vote on this because there are a lot of unknowns."

Those opposing the bridge, including Mr. Moroun, argue that upkeep would become an eventual drain on already-taxed state resources.

Mr. Moroun, whose company operates the 81-year-old span, has spent an estimated $4.5 million on ads - in Michigan and Canada - to scotch the project, which would cut his own profits from tolls on the roughly 2 million trucks that cross his bridge each year, carrying about one-fourth of all U.S.-Canada trade.

A poll commissioned by Mr. Hagerstroms group, AFP-Michigan, and conducted by Inc./WomanTrend pollster Kelly Anne Conway, found that 49 percent of state voters oppose it with more than a third (36 percent) strongly against the project.

But while voters are divided, the governor's interest in the bridge is bolstered by business leaders including Bill Ford Jr., the executive chairman of Ford Motor Co."

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