STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Of all the border crossings between the United States and Canada, the busiest is privately owned. It's the Ambassador Bridge, which leads out of Detroit, and it carries one quarter of the trade between two giant trading partners. The trouble is that government inspectors have limited access to this bridge, and it's not clear who is in charge of making sure it does not become a target for terrorists.
The owner is a reclusive billionaire, who is distrusted by many on both sides of the border. NPR's Pam Fessler reports that he's in a fierce battle with the government-run group over who gets to build the next crossing.
PAM FESSLER: There are a lot of things about the Ambassador Bridge that annoy Gregg Ward, but few things disturb him more than seeing uninspected trucks park right under the bridge, as traffic up above had to cross the Detroit River.
Mr. GREGG WARD (Ferry Operator): If I just want to show you just how ridiculous, I think, the security issue is here.
FESSLER: Ward, who runs a nearby ferry for haz-mat trucks, takes me down a bumpy side road. From here, we can get a good view of the bridge's duty free store, where dozens of truck and car drivers are filling their tanks before crossing to Canada. Others have left their vehicles while they shop inside.
Mr. WARD: You can see between where those trucks park under the bridge. So all they're doing is paying a toll, and then they park and they walk over there. And right where you see this truck parking pointed that way, that's where the fuel trucks back in to unload their duty free fuel.
FESSLER: Ward says it doesn't take a genius to see the potential for disaster. He recalls the fuel truck accident earlier this year that caused a major highway to collapse in California. An explosion here could be disastrous, shutting down one of the most important trade arteries in the nation.
The bridge company denies there's a security risk. But no government agency seems to be responsible for making sure.
I show a picture of the parked trucks to Jay Ahern, assistant commissioner of Customs and Border Protection whose officers are up on top of the bridge, working diligently to make sure nothing dangerous enters the U.S.
Mr. JAY AHERN (Customs and Border Protection): That would be more of a transportation responsibility - either at the state or the federal level for those agencies - but that would not be a Customs and Border Protection responsibility.
FESSLER: But transportation officials say it's not their job either. A spokesman for the Federal Highway Administration says they've raised concerns about the trucks with bridge owner, but they don't have jurisdiction. Neither does the federal agency that oversees the transportation of hazardous materials. Nor does the Coast Guard. Nor does the Michigan State Police. I asked Ahern who is in charge.
So the overall responsibility for security of this bridge lies with?
Mr. AHERN: Many different components. You know, certainly, you have state entities that are responsible for it. You have some federal responsibilities as well. You have Canadian authorities on their side of the bridge. And certainly the bridge owner has some responsibility to a degree as well.
FESSLER: And critics say therein lies the problem, having such an important border crossing in private hands. Government officials can't go on the bridge to inspect it themselves and have only recently gained access to the bridge company's inspection reports.
And there's more. Gregg Ward notes that the bridge allows some trucks carrying restricted hazardous materials to cross. Federal officials tell NPR there's little they can do other than to go after the trucking companies.
Mr. WARD: It's called critical infrastructure because it's critical, and this is the crossing for billions of dollars of U.S. trade, and it's controlled by somebody that isn't controlled by the government.
Mr. DAN STAMPER (President, Detroit International Bridge Company): I don't control the border. Customs, U.S. federal agents control the border. They decide who comes, who goes.
FESSLER: Dan Stamper is president of the Detroit International Bridge Company, which runs the bridge. The owner, 79-year-old businessman Matty Moroun, seldom talks to reporters, and this story was no exception.
Mr. STAMPER: All I do is fill the piece of roadway, manage it, protect the roadway and help with traffic directing and traffic control. That's what I do and I do it very well.
FESSLER: Stamper says the security issue is a red herring being used by those who want a new government-run bridge to be built downstream. He doesn't think that makes sense, just because a terrorist might try to attack his facility.
Mr. STAMPER: We didn't build a new Capitol in Washington a mile west of our current Capitol. We didn't build the White House a mile west. What we did was protected them. And I'm the only bridge, the only piece of infrastructure at its own cost has armed security protecting the bridge. That's what we need to do. That's what we're doing.
FESSLER: And to be clear, federal officials say they do think the Ambassador Bridge is generally well-run and safe. But a lot of people here want another crossing just in case - not only as backup for the 78-year-old Ambassador Bridge, but to handle future growth. So a bi-national group representing the Canadian and U.S. governments is studying the options.
But at the same time Ambassador Bridge has its own plans. It wants to build a new six-lane span right next to the existing bridge. Stamper and I are standing on the Canadian side, where construction crews are already working on new inspection booths. He says the company has spent more than $400 million so far on the new bridge project.
Mr. STAMPER: Some people believe only government can do these things, and that's the real issue at hand, is should government build this next bridge, or should private industry build it?
FESSLER: And some key people support the Ambassador. Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick has called the government-backed effort an unnecessary project to remedy a non-existent problem. Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm has said the new Ambassador span would be cheaper for taxpayers, but she thinks the bi-national study should also proceed.
Bridge critics attribute some of the support to the influence of owner Matty Moroun, who has built a powerful business empire. He owns trucking companies that serve the auto industry. He's also a big campaign contributor.
State legislator Steve Tobocman, who represents communities near the base of the Ambassador, says that's all the more reason the next crossing should not be under Moroun's control.
State Representative STEVE TOBOCMAN (Democrat, Michigan): That's one of the benefits of having a publicly owned crossing and having units of government who have much broader public-policy concerns than a private company look at the border situation and determine the best crossing. The public has worked very hard with the local community to minimize the impacts.
FESSLER: But ferry owner Gregg Ward isn't optimistic that the government will win the battle. As trucks board a small ferry for the trip to Canada, he points to huge plots of land along the river owned by Moroun. Some of which Ward thinks could potentially block another bridge.
Mr. WARD: I think he's going to have the government in checkmate pretty soon. They're going to fall asleep at the wheel. You know, you always hope the public process works, but it's a very slow public process.
FESSLER: In fact, the bi-national group envisions a new bridge by 2013. Stamper says the new Ambassador span could be ready by 2010 - if the company gets the permits it needs. Some here think that won't happen, in part because opposition on the Canadian side of the bridge is especially strong.
Pam Fessler, NPR News.
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INSKEEP: You can hear more about that Canadian opposition tomorrow on MORNING EDITION. And you can find the history of the Ambassador Bridge along with some pretty amazing black and white photos from the 1930s, by going to npr.org.