Canada has reached an accord with Michigan's governor to build a second bridge between Windsor and Detroit, sources say – another step forward in a decade-long battle by Ottawa to broaden the biggest conduit for two-way trade with the United States.
About 25 per cent of the goods Canada and the U.S. sell to each other in any given year cross over the existing Ambassador Bridge between Ontario and Michigan.
Canadian efforts to build a second span have been repeatedly frustrated by the owners of the current bridge, who have used legal action and public-relations campaigns – including TV ads – to fight back.
Keen to see the project proceed as a means of easing cross-border traffic and meeting future demand, Canada has even offered to pay Michigan's $550-million share of the project – an advance that would later be repaid from toll revenue.
For months, the Harper government and Governor Rick Snyder have been quietly negotiating a so-called "interlocal" agreement that would enable a deal on a new bridge, despite opposition to such a pact from Michigan's state legislature. Mr. Snyder has been a tireless champion for a new span.
This agreement between Ottawa and the governor does not end Canada's fight for a second bridge.
The Canadian government expects the operators of the privately owned Ambassador Bridge will take further legal action to stop it.
The company behind the Ambassador Bridge is also currently gathering signatures to put a referendum question on Michigan's November election ballot. If it succeeds, that could throw a big wrench in Canada's plans.
The sought-after ballot question would ask Michigan voters if they want to amend their Constitution so that a statewide ballot is required before a new bridge goes ahead.
The new bridge is expected to cost nearly $1-billion and will be privately financed by whichever company wins the right to build it. Both countries, however, have to put in place customs plazas and ramps and connecting roads on each side – infrastructure that will cost about $2.5-billion.
"This is the most important trade crossing in North America," Canadian Chamber of Commerce president Perrin Beatty said of the Detroit-Windsor link.
Even if no major obstacles arise to thwart the bridge plans, it will likely be 2014 before construction begins. The United States must still expropriate land on the Detroit side of the bridge.
The new crossing would span the Detroit River south of the Ambassador Bridge from the Brighton Beach area in Windsor to the Delray area of Detroit.
The bridge deal between Canada and the United States only becomes official after Prime Minister Stephen Harper's cabinet approves the agreement, a move that's expected as early as Wednesday.
The Harper government remained mum on the development Tuesday but a formal announcement from Canada and Mr. Snyder is scheduled for early Friday afternoon, sources say.
The Ambassador Bridge is a key lifeline of the auto industry, with hundreds of finished vehicles shipped across the crossing every day and key parts that are assembled into those vehicles being shipped to assembly plants in both countries.
But the auto industry is not satisfied. It's been arguing loudly for a second Windsor-Detroit bridge for more than a decade, even before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 led to weeks of border gridlock and the shutdowns of assembly plants.
"It was built in our grandparents' day," Mr. Beatty said of the Ambassador Bridge. "All of the infrastructure in that region is aging."
Mr. Beatty said Canada needs more than one major commercial link to Detroit.
"From a security point of view, if a terrorist attack were to take out that one crossing, the economic damage would be incalculable."
A spokeswoman for federal Transport Minister Denis Lebel declined to discuss the state of negotiations on the bridge Tuesday.
"We do remain committed to building a new publicly owned bridge between Windsor and Detroit and we do continue to work with the state of Michigan and the U.S. federal government, but I have nothing else to report on this today," Geneviève Sicard said.