Proposal for New Border Bridge Draws Critics

The second of two reports

The Ambassador Bridge i i

The Ambassador Bridge between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario, carries $100 billion worth of international trade each year. Proponents of a new bridge say the Ambassador Bridge isn't wide enough to handle the increasing trade volume. Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Getty Images
The Ambassador Bridge

The Ambassador Bridge between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario, carries $100 billion worth of international trade each year. Proponents of a new bridge say the Ambassador Bridge isn't wide enough to handle the increasing trade volume.

Getty Images

There's a border war in the Detroit area, but it's not between the United States and Canada. It's between the private owner of the Ambassador Bridge — the busiest crossing between the two countries — and a government effort to build another bridge nearby. Concerns have been raised about having one such crucial border crossing in private hands.

Preserving History

Some of the strongest concerns have been raised in Windsor, Ontario, home of the historic Sandwich community. Lana Talbot is secretary of the Sandwich First Baptist Church, built in 1851 by former American slaves. She lifts a panel from the floor of the church, at the end of one pew, to reveal a narrow crawl space dug into the ground.

"This is where they would go down. Sometimes they would go underneath the church, lay there, and I'm telling you there's only about two feet. Get down underneath the church and wait," she says.

Those waiting were escaped slaves, hiding from bounty hunters.

Sandwich First Baptist Church was a major terminus for the Underground Railroad. Talbot and others here worry that this slice of history could be threatened by a plan to build a new, six-lane span for the Ambassador Bridge, which links Detroit and Windsor across the Detroit River. Despite the bridge owner's objections, residents fear that access roads needed to handle tens of thousands of vehicles will destroy the area.

"Have you ever seen a cancer? Does it stay in one place or does it start spreading? Maybe not in my time, but maybe in my grandchildren's time," Talbot says.

Across town, Mary Ann Cuderman works in a bake shop in her 200-year-old house. Cuderman is a leader of community opposition to the Ambassador Bridge plan. Like many here, she favors a government-backed effort to construct another bridge downstream. Cuderman is suspicious of the private bridge company's long-term intentions. She notes that the company has been buying up dozens of Sandwich properties.

"Give me the whole picture, because then I can make an educated determination on what you're trying to do. But don't give me bits and pieces and think I'm going to swallow the rest of it, because its not going to happen," Cuderman says.

A Serious Image Problem

Up against this opposition is Dan Stamper, president of the Detroit International Bridge Company, which owns the Ambassador. Stamper stands at the Windsor end of the four-lane suspension bridge, and says the new six-lane span will feed into the existing plaza. He says the company bought nearby homes just to build a buffer zone, and that it has no plans to buy more land.

"Some of the discussion on our bridge is how we're going to destroy the town of Sandwich. We're not interfering with the town of Sandwich." Stamper says. "So I think some people have been deceitful in trying to incite the community into what our project is instead of what it really is."

He says it's really an effort to ensure the free flow of trade, because the existing 78-year-old bridge isn't up to today's demands.

But the company faces serious image problems. Its owner, Manuel "Matty" Moroun, is a reclusive billionaire, who has built a powerful empire in the area. He also owns truck companies, real estate and, his critics say, a few politicians. His opponents doubt he has the public's interests at heart. But Stamper says that's not so.

"We're not the devil. I don't wear horns. I don't have a tail. When we're done and this buffer zone gets built. I think people are going to be amazed at how much better their community really is," Stamper says.

Support here is crucial. The Ambassador Bridge needs permits from Canada and Windsor, as well as the United States. But those same governments are part of the binational effort studying whether to build the other bridge, about a mile away. Windsor Mayor Eddie Francis says one reason another bridge is needed is security. Trucks crossing the Ambassador carry one-quarter of all trade between the United States and Canada — more than $100 billion a year.

"If they can't cross here, and there's no other way for them to cross, it has an impact on the economy," Francis says. "So it's a significant issue from a homeland security perspective. Redundancy is something that needs to be considered in the era that we live in."

Who Will Control the Next Crossing?

Francis thinks the new bridge should be under public control, and that Moroun already has too much power. In fact, Windsor recently offered to buy Detroit's half of a nearby car tunnel, just to keep it out of Moroun's hands.

But the government-bridge plan faces its own obstacles.

Sean O'Dell manages the project for Canada's transport agency. He stands by the Detroit River in a relatively deserted section of Windsor. This is where the public bridge — if built — would likely go. O'Dell points to a huge, aging steel plant on the American side.

"The 'dark Satanic mills' as William Blake would say. And the reason we've ended up focusing on this area and eliminating other options is largely because it is industrial. It will have the least impact on communities."

It will also be an improvement over the Ambassador Bridge expansion plan, he says. But the Canadian and U.S. governments still need to approve the $2 billion public project. Meanwhile, the Ambassador Bridge is trying to press ahead. Many here doubt the area can sustain two new bridges — one reason that competition over who controls the next crossing is expected to be so intense.

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