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Canada should gear up for a fight or a deal on Detroit-Windsor bridge

Drive north toward the Canadian border from just about any point in the United States, and it can feel like you're bound for the wild frontier. The roads get lonelier, the population sparser and the trees smaller.

What Americans think of as the fringe of their country is where Canada's vibrant hub begins. This yawning perception gap explains a lot about how the two countries look at the border.

Take the ill-fated $1.8-billion (U.S.) new bridge linking Detroit and Windsor, Ont.

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The project, which would streamline a part of the border through which a quarter of Canada-U.S. trade flows, is considered the single most important infrastructure project in the country. Ottawa is so eager to get the project done that it's offering Michigan the equivalent of $550-million in foreign aid to build approach roads on its side of the span. Ontario is already at work on an access highway.

With the Obama administration pledging matching highway funds, Canadian officials thought the bridge was a done deal.

But across the Detroit River in Michigan, there's no similar sense of urgency. And the bridge has succumbed to petty squabbling among state politicians and heavy-handed lobbying by billionaire Manuel (Matty) Moroun, the wily American owner of the existing Ambassador toll bridge.

The upshot is that the project is probably a no-go, at least until after next year's state elections.

A state Senate committee voted down the bridge project this month. The bill never even reached the Senate floor. After the vote, Republican Senate majority leader Randy Richardville said bluntly: "There are other things we should be talking about."

Michigan's Republican Governor Rick Snyder, who's in Ottawa on Monday to speak at a cross-border innovation conference, acknowledged recently that "a cooling down period" is probably necessary.

And so the project languishes. Five years after officials in both countries agreed a new bridge was essential to boosting trade and easing congestion, it's on the shelf again, perhaps for years.

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There's a lesson for Canadian policy makers in this saga. National priorities in Canada are often fringe topics south of the border. Issues that dominate national headlines in Canada, such as anger over Buy American purchasing rules or the tax crackdown on dual Canadian-American citizens, typically get little attention in the U.S. media.

The bridge is a classic example of this. Canadian officials took the high road, ignoring key actors, including Mr. Moroun and key Republican lawmakers who object to using public funds to put a private company out of business.

But if the federal and Ontario governments want the bridge built, they may have to get dirty and wade into the muck of Michigan politics.

That almost certainly means dealing directly with Mr. Moroun, who has so far spent millions of dollars fighting the new bridge, including generous contributions to key lawmakers and on TV ads in both countries.

Publicly, Mr. Moroun, 84, and his son, Matthew, who's in his mid-30s, have cast the new bridge as a costly and unnecessary boondoggle. They argue that truck traffic has fallen sharply in the past decade.

That's just posturing, though. What the Morouns really want is to be bought out or otherwise compensated for the loss of their cash cow. A new span directly linking Highway 401 and U.S. Interstate 75 would turn the Ambassador Bridge into a sleepy commuter bridge and dramatically lower toll income.

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The good news is that there may be a window of opportunity to make peace with Mr. Moroun. Friends say the younger Moroun has little interest in being a bridge operator for the rest of his life. He's drawn instead to the family-owned transportation business and real estate holdings.

To do a deal, Ottawa must get over its visceral distrust of the Moroun family. It may even mean buying the Ambassador Bridge or offering the Morouns operating contracts for other border bridges.

Doing nothing also has a steep price. Every year that goes by puts tens of millions of dollars in tolls into the Morouns' pockets. And congestion on the 81-year-old Ambassador Bridge costs major users, including the Detroit Three auto makers, tens of millions of dollars in extra costs every year.

Either way, the Canadian economy loses.

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