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Michigan Governor vows approval for Ambassador Bridge replacement

The Ambassador Bridge which connects Windsor, Ontario and Detroit, Michigan, seen here April 29, 2010.

GEOFF ROBINS/The Globe and Mail

Michigan Governor Rick Snyder is vowing to get a long-delayed span to replace the aging and congested Ambassador Bridge linking Detroit and Windsor, Ont., approved within months.

Weeks after the $1.8-billion project stalled in a Michigan legislative committee, Mr. Snyder insisted he remains "very positive" the bridge will go ahead early next year.

"We will get this bridge built," the Republican Governor said in an interview Wednesday during a visit to Ottawa. "My goal is to get it sooner rather than later. I don't view this as a project that should be delayed in term of years as it has in the past – we're looking at months as opposed to years."

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Replacing the 81-year-old Ambassador Bridge, a cash cow that has made its U.S. owner Manuel (Matty) Moroun a billionaire, has become a political lightning rod in Michigan.

Mr. Moroun and his allies spent millions of dollars on TV ads, in both Michigan and Ontario, casting the project as a wasteful boondoggle and a monument to Mr. Snyder's personal ambition. The Moroun family has also made large political donations to dozens of state lawmakers.

In Canada, the bridge replacement is seen as the country's most important infrastructure project – a span that will carry the quarter of all Canada-U.S. trade that now travels across the Ambassador Bridge. Ottawa is offering up to $550-million to help Michigan fund its part of the project.

Mr. Snyder acknowledged that the new bridge remains a tough sell in Michigan, where relatively few people understand the vital role the bridge plays in getting U.S. exports to markets in Canada and beyond. The project was first proposed more than five years ago.

The perception in many parts of the state is that the project is a political payoff for the heavily Democratic Detroit area, offering jobs and construction contracts to an economically depressed part of the state.

"This is a very tough project," said Mr. Snyder, who is in Ottawa to speak at a cross-border innovation conference organized by the U.S. embassy and Canada 2020. "I wouldn't underestimate the challenges. But we will get this to happen."

He blamed "special interest politics" for poisoning the debate on the U.S. side.

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"I understand why they're spending the money," he said of the Morouns. "It's economic self-interest. The troubling part is the lack of accuracy in what they represent."

Mr. Snyder, who has three years remaining in his mandate, wouldn't say exactly how he'll twist enough arms to get the project approved.

One option is to make an end-run around the legislature and use an executive order to get work on the bridge started.

The province of Ontario has already begun work on access roads to link Highway 401 with the new crossing, which is located on the Detroit River just downstream from the two cities and the existing bridge.

Mr. Snyder would say only that he's continuing a "quiet dialogue" with people. "We are making progress in building relationships that will make a difference," he added.

Part of the larger challenge for projects, such as the bridge and a proposed new cross-border rail tunnel near Detroit, is that "Americans tend to be very American-centric," Mr. Snyder said – a theme he took up in his speech to the conference.

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"What we have to do is pull out a map of North America and then you draw a circle from Chicago to Montreal, and then we're a third of the North American economy," he said. "So the natural partners are Ontario and Canada in creating those best relationships, and that starts with the bridge and a new rail tunnel."

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About the Author
National Business Correspondent

Barrie McKenna is correspondent and columnist in The Globe and Mail's Ottawa bureau. From 1997 until 2010, he covered Washington from The Globe's bureau in the U.S. capital. During his U.S. posting, he traveled widely, filing stories from more than 30 states. Mr. McKenna has also been a frequent visitor to Japan and South Korea on reporting assignments. More

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