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Few people in the scenic countryside of northern Michigan would argue that the beauty of a bridge is not important.

Most would just point to a monumental gateway span that has become a symbol of their state as well as a pathway across the forbidding currents of the Straits of Mackinac.

The Mackinac Bridge is the most recognizable crossing in the Great Lakes and one of the world's "signature" bridges. Pending the completion of a new Scandinavian bridge, it reigns as the world's longest suspension span -- more than 1 1/2 miles of road over water, the middle 3,800 feet crossing a 300-foot deep channel between 552-foot-tall towers.

"They call it the crowning jewel of the Midwest," said Mike Litzner of the Mackinac Bridge Authority. "It's a very, very important piece of infrastructure for the State of Michigan."

As Buffalo and Fort Erie consider competing proposals that may pit symbolism against practicality, the straits has a bridge that is both. Between 4 million and 5 million vehicles a year cross the five miles of bridge and approaches, and the structure has become a tourism "destination."

"I'm quite pleased at the way it turned out," said Larry Rubin, the first executive secretary of the bridge authority and one of the people who helped get the bridge built 40 years ago.

The new span, which many said could not be built in the tricky currents of the deep straits, ended waits of up to 18 hours at the car ferries linking Michigan's Lower and Upper peninsulas.

But utility was not the only concern. Bridge architect David B. Steinman strongly believed that the builders should leave a legacy of beauty as well as utility, and his structure showed it.

"That was always it," said Rubin, whose retirement home overlooks the span. "There were never any questions about it, because we have a beautiful spot."

"Everybody constantly refers to the contribution this has made to the great peninsulas," said Henry A. Lotoszinski, the authority's current executive secretary. "The Mackinac Bridge is what makes that statement -- it brought the state together as one, instead of two peninsulas."

Travel between the peninsulas, in fact, increased from 900,000 in the busiest years of the car ferries to 4.6 million vehicles on the bridge last year.

The bridge is crowded in summer, when Michigan's Upper Peninsula becomes a vacationland. In late fall, heavy traffic hits again during deer season.

"We're a vacation bridge; we don't have the commercial traffic you do," Rubin noted. But the "Mac" also acts as a conduit for the nearby international bridge in Sault Ste. Marie, just across the Upper Peninsula to the north.

Bridge authority tallies for 1996 included nearly 3.8 million noncommuter cars and pickup trucks and about 300,000 trucks -- just over half the car traffic and a quarter of the truck traffic logged at the Peace Bridge.

But the "Mac" is far more celebrated than its older cousin in Buffalo. The landmark quality of the bridge is evident in souvenirs throughout the region. Each year, 60,000 people join in a Labor Day "Bridge Walk" -- usually led by the governor, but headed in 1992 by then-President George Bush.

"It's been an annual event since the bridge was opened, and it attracts more and more people every year," Lotoszinski said. "It's become a family thing."

The "Mac" is a suspension bridge, like the Golden Gate, the Brooklyn Bridge and Detroit's Ambassador Bridge. Its dramatic style was pioneered at the Niagara Gorge but banished from this area in favor of arch bridges.

While the Peace Bridge Authority favors a plan that would include a near-twin of the current span, with a more dramatic and sweeping "Black Rock Arch," backers of the larger SuperSpan concept would prefer either modern, slender arches or an even newer type of bridge -- a "cable stay" span, an extension of the suspension bridge concept.

Any design, operators of other bridges agree, should offer some "gateway" elements.

Despite major plaza improvements at the Ambassador Bridge, for example, Skip McMahon, the general manager, notes, "At this border crossing there's no welcome center, which is a real sin."

At the "Mac," soaring cream-white towers and a green bridge deck provide the symbolic gateway from most of Michigan to the still-wild Upper Peninsula. At night, the bridge sparkles in blue and gold lights.

"It has been the subject of painters and photographers and writers," Lotoszinski noted with pride. "The bridge offers a tremendous opportunity for tourism and business up here. People plan vacations just to come up and see the bridge."

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