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Bids on construction of a twin to the Peace Bridge will be opened at 11 a.m. Dec. 23, and contracts are to be awarded within 60 days, the Peace Bridge Authority was told Friday.

The project is estimated to cost between $65 million and $80 million (U.S.) with the cost of steel having a large impact on whether bids are at the low end or the high end of that range, Stephen F. Mayer, operations manager, said.

Construction will begin in spring and take three years.

The authority, meeting at the new duty-free shop, voted unanimously to extend retroactively to March 31, 1998 its contract with toll collectors and maintenance workers on the U.S. side while negotiations continue. The action followed a 70-minute executive session.

The old contract expired April 1, 1997 and negotiations have been going on for 23 months. Any new agreement would be retroactive to April 1, 1998.

The authority was within its right under the state's Taylor Law and the action was not unexpected, said Brian Masterson, president of Teamsters Local 375, which represents the 42 workers.

Major sticking points in negotiations are the authority's insistence on a $1,000 lump-sum payment for the first year, rather than a percentage increase, and a progressive wage schedule for new employees under which they would only reach 75 percent of the pay level of current employees after five years.

"They won't compromise, we can't reach a happy medium," Masterson said. "We fully intend to keep on bargaining."

The statistical report for October showed that bridge crossings by cars declined by 5 percent to 499,129 over last October and are down 1.8 percent year to date. Bus and truck crossings also declined for the month, although total truck crossings are up 4 percent for the year.

A lane closing due to construction might have been responsible for the October decrease, acting secretary-treasurer Stanley M. Matthews said.

The official groundbreaking ceremony for the new bridge is scheduled for May 26. Authority members discussed whether to have a straightforward ceremony on both sides or make the occasion part of a daylong symposium on international trade and commerce.

While favoring the idea of a symposium, members said cost and time constraints might mean it is better suited for when the new bridge opens.

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