In Michigan, A Contentious Battle Over A Bridge

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In Michigan, voters will decide on a ballot measure that would mandate statewide referendums for any new international border crossings. That seemingly neutral language masks a very specific — and bitter — political battle over whether to build a new bridge connecting Detroit and Windsor, Ontario.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

On Election Day next week, Michigan voters will face a question about international bridges and tunnels. It's really a question about one bridge in particularly - a long-planned and highly-contested connection between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario.

As Michigan Radio's Sarah Cwiek reports, it's an electoral twist in a bitter struggle with Michigan's governor and Canada on one side, and a billionaire bridge owner on the other.

SARAH CWIEK, BYLINE: The ballot measure is Proposal Six. It would amend Michigan's Constitution, so that if the state ever wants to build a new international bridge or tunnel, the whole state, and each affected municipality, would have to first hold a referendum.

So basically, this means there would have to be a statewide and a local election if Michigan ever wants to build a new bridge to Canada - which, not coincidentally, the current Governor does. So if you live in Michigan, you're seeing lots of TV ads like this one.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Before politicians spend billions on a bridge, we deserve to have our voices heard.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Michigan has a lot of priorities. We need teachers. We need police.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Firefighters. First responders.

ROY NORTON: Canada will pay for a bridge. Those Canadian funds are not available to Michigan to pay for textbooks or policemen or firefighters.

CWIEK: That's Canadian consul general Roy Norton, appearing with Michigan Governor Rick Snyder at a town hall meeting in Detroit. Norton and the Governor say Proposal Six is a really bad idea. Canadian officials desperately want a new bridge connecting Detroit and Windsor, Ontario. Norton calls the bridge Canada's number one infrastructure priority.

Right now, there's only one bridge connecting Detroit and Windsor - the 83-year-old Ambassador Bridge. And it's owned by one man. Governor Snyder says that's a problem.

GOVERNOR RICK SNYDER: There's one special interest that has a near-monopoly on commercial traffic over the Detroit River. And they're making a lot of money.

CWIEK: That special interest is the Detroit International Bridge Company, owned by billionaire trucking magnate Manuel Matty Moroun. Moroun has poured more than $30 million into ads, trying to convince Michigan voters that a new bridge is a bad idea.

But Governor Snyder charges that nearly everything in those ads is a lie. He says Canada will cover the cost of the project, leaving Michigan with no liability.

SNYDER: They're going to pay the cost for this project. This is not normal, folks. Think about that.

CWIEK: Moroun has spent untold millions battling any new bridge proposal. Many see Proposal Six as his last-ditch effort to keep a competing bridge from being built.

And that infuriates Hugh Graham, who runs a funeral home in Southwest Detroit, near where the new bridge would be built.

HUGH GRAHAM: I mean god, don't I wish I could put in a proposal to ban there being any other funeral homes within five miles of me?

CWIEK: Graham says this sitting in limbo is a killer.

GRAHAM: It's just, you know, we've been sitting here watching this, sitting on pins and needles for what? Eight years now?

CWIEK: Graham supports a new bridge - even though it would mean selling his family business to the state so it can become a freeway interchange. It's been a costly waiting game for Hugh Graham and other property owners in Southwest Detroit - especially those in the neighborhood known as Delray, an economically-devastated, heavily industrial area that's already lost lots of residents. Graham says many who remain are poor and elderly.

GRAHAM: This bridge could very well be a housing savior for them, as long as the state treats them properly.

CWIEK: The state of Michigan has promised that community benefits are built into the new bridge agreement.

Jeffrey Baker is the pastor at Saint Paul AME Church in Delray. He says the longer this political battle drags on, the more people here are skeptical about the bridge project, and the ballot proposal.

JEFFREY BAKER: We're in limbo. And we already have put in our minds, that whether the yes or the no win, there's going to be a lawsuit right after that.

CWIEK: And lawsuits mean more uncertainty - and more waiting, possibly stalling the process for years to come. Which bridge supporters say might just be their opponent's game plan.

For NPR news, I'm Sarah Cwiek in Detroit.

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