LANSING, Mich. — Michigan won approval Friday to build a second bridge between Detroit and Canada, a key step toward starting construction on the $3.5 billion government project intended to relieve congestion and speed up trade at the busiest northern U.S. border crossing.
A permit awarded by the U.S. Department of State allows Michigan and Windsor, Ontario, to move forward with the span over the Detroit River. Construction of the bridge could start in 2015 and the entire project — including the bridge, interchange ramps and customs plazas — could be finished by 2020.
Lawsuits challenging the bridge, though, have been filed by a lawmaker and the owners of the Ambassador Bridge, currently the lone bridge between Detroit and Windsor.
The presidential permit is a requirement for all U.S. border crossing projects with Canada and Mexico and comes 10 months after Gov. Rick Snyder and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper struck a deal calling for Canada to pay for the span over the Detroit River. It also follows Michigan voters' rejection last fall of a referendum backed by the Ambassador Bridge owners that would have slowed down or halted construction through a ballot measure.
The State Department said in a statement that the New International Trade Crossing will "serve the national interest."
"The NITC will help to meet future capacity requirements in a critical travel corridor, promote cross-border trade and commerce, and advance our vital bilateral relationship with Canada," the agency said.
Snyder, a Republican, is a huge proponent of the bridge and reached his own interlocal agreement with Canada in June 2012 after running into opposition in the GOP-led Legislature. He estimated the construction projects will create 12,000 construction jobs and as many as 31,000 indirect jobs.
"Getting Michigan-made products to more markets faster will enhance our economic competitiveness in the future and help our state create more jobs," Snyder said in a statement. He planned to attend an afternoon news conference at a Detroit business near where the bridge it to be built.
Hurdles remain to constructing the new bridge two miles south of the 83-year-old Ambassador Bridge. In a federal lawsuit, bridge owner Manuel "Matty" Moroun claims a "perpetual and exclusive franchise right" to operate the bridge free of competition from another span and questions the constitutionality of a 1972 law giving the State Department authority to approve international bridges.
State Rep. Fred Durhal, D-Detroit, has sued in Ingham County, challenging Snyder's authority to forge the agreement with Canada contrary to state laws approved in recent years.
The Snyder administration calls the suits a delay tactic.
Construction of the government bridge is estimated to cost about $950 million. Canada has promised to take on Michigan's $550 million portion with revenue from future tolls paying off the debt. The total cost of the bridge is $3.5 billion, including work on freeway interchanges. Canada also will pay for an interchange linking the span to Interstate 75 on the American side. The U.S. will pay for its customs plaza.
Detroit-based Consul General of Canada Roy Norton said he is "thrilled" the permit was granted as expected, calling it the last major piece needed to move ahead.
Initial steps will be relocating utility lines and identifying which properties on the U.S. side of the river need to be seized and bought under Michigan's eminent domain power. Canada will pay for the land, some of which was strategically purchased by the Moroun family to make it more difficult to start construction, Norton said.
A message seeking comment was left with an official with the Ambassador Bridge company.
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