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Proposal for New Border Bridge Draws Critics

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Proposal for New Border Bridge Draws Critics

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Proposal for New Border Bridge Draws Critics

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Let's catch up on a border war in the Detroit area. It is not between the United States and Canada. It's between the private owner of the Ambassador Bridge, which is the busiest crossing between the two countries, and a government planned to build another bridge nearby. Security concerns have been raised about having one crucial border crossing in private hands.

NPR's Pam Fessler has the second of two reports this morning, this time examining concerns on the Canadian side.

PAM FESSLER: The Sandwich neighborhood of Windsor, Ontario has a rich history, which Lana Talbot is eager to share. She's secretary of the First Baptist Church, built here in 1851 by former American slaves.

Talbot walks to the end of a long wooden pew, bends down and lifts a panel from the floor.

Ms. LANA TALBOT (Secretary, First Baptist Church): Now.

FESSLER: Underneath she shows me a narrow crawlspace dug into the ground.

Ms. TALBOT: This is where they would go down. Sometimes they'd go underneath the church, lay there. And I'm telling you, there's only about two feet. Get down underneath the church and wait.

FESSLER: Those waiting were escaped slaves, waiting for bounty hunters spotted nearby to go away. Down the stairs behind the altar, Talbot shows me the rest of the tunnel under the church, which was a major terminus for the underground railroad. She and others here worry that the 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 protestations, residents fear that access roads needed to handle tens of thousands of vehicles will destroy the area.

Ms. TALBOT: Have you ever seen cancer? Does it just stay on one place, or does it start spreading? Maybe not in my time, but maybe in my grandchildren's time.

FESSLER: Across town, Mary Ann Cuderman works in a bakeshop in her 200-year-old house. She's helping an assistant bake butter tarts.

Ms. MARY ANN CUDERMAN (Baker): I just do it by smell and sight, you know, until, you know, they're slightly brown, you know.

Unidentified Woman: Okay. Yeah.

Ms. CUDERMAN: You know, before they burn.

FESSLER: Cuderman is a leader of community opposition to the Ambassador Bridge plan. Like many here, she favors a government-backed effort to build another bridge downstream. Cuderman is suspicious of the private bridge company's long-term intentions. She notes that it's been buying up dozens of Sandwich properties.

Ms. CUDERMAN: Give me the whole picture, and 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 it's not going to happen.

FESSLER: 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. He says the new six-lane span will feed into the existing plaza - that the company bought nearby homes to build a buffer zone, but that's it.

Mr. DAN STAMPER (President, Detroit International Bridge Company): 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. 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.

FESSLER: 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 some serious image problems. Its owner, Matty Moroun, is a reclusive billionaire who has built a powerful empire in the region. Besides the bridge, 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.

Mr. STAMPER: 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.

FESSLER: And 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 is security. Trucks crossing the Ambassador carry one-quarter of all trade between the United States and Canada - more than $100 billion a year.

Mayor EDDIE FRANCIS (Windsor, Canada): If they can't cross here, and there's no other way for them to cross, it has an impact on the economy. 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.

FESSLER: And Francis thinks the new bridge has to be under public control, 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's standing 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.

Mr. SEAN O'DELL (Executive Director, Windsor Gateway Project Team): 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.

FESSLER: And be an improvement, he says, over the Ambassador plan. 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 competition over who controls the next crossing is expected to be so intense.

Pam Fessler, NPR News.

INSKEEP: The first part of our report on the Ambassador Bridge is at npr.org.

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