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Governor, billionaire clash over new bridge

Seven months after Michigan elected a new governor and Legislature, negative TV ads are popping up again -- along with fiery speeches, robo-calls and accusations of twisting facts and dirty tricks.

This time, it's not about an election. It's about a bridge.

Government officials and business groups have agreed for years on the need for a second international bridge between Detroit and Windsor, Ont., the busiest commercial border crossing in North America. The effort has stalled, largely because of opposition from the owner of the existing Ambassador Bridge, billionaire Manuel "Matty" Moroun.

Nearly 30 percent of the goods sold between the United States and Canada are trucked across the Detroit River. Yet there are just two main paths through the bottleneck: an underwater tunnel too cramped for tractor-trailers, and the Ambassador.

Moroun contends a publicly supported bridge would compete unfairly with his own. Bridge supporters say it would relieve congestion and provide an alternative in case the aging Ambassador is disabled. Their push has been gaining traction -- largely because Republican Gov. Rick Snyder has championed the project.

Snyder is pushing for quick approval of measures to create a U.S.-Canadian authority to oversee construction of a bridge about two miles south of the Ambassador.

Legislative hearings started this week. Moroun and his allies are fighting back, saying an overbearing government is trying to destroy his company with a boondoggle that will cost taxpayers $100 million a year.

"Politicians have a bridge they want to sell you," an announcer says darkly in one TV ad. "A bridge we can't afford, with money we don't have."

Backers of a new bridge dispute the $100 million figure. Snyder insists there's enough traffic for two bridges.

Supporting the plan are both federal governments and corporate heavyweights, including General Motors, Ford, Chrysler, Amway and Kellogg. Organized labor is on board. Both Detroit's Democratic mayor and the Republican executive of adjacent Oakland County favor it.

Democrats in the Legislature have long backed the idea, and there are signs that opposition from Republicans who control both chambers may be softening.

Still, Moroun has considerable influence. His family and employees pumped more than $550,000 into races for state offices in 2009 and 2010, the nonpartisan Michigan Campaign Finance Network says.

Also in his corner is the Michigan chapter of right-wing advocacy group Americans for Prosperity, which has sent mass mailings to districts of wavering GOP legislators, and distributed fake eviction notices in a working-class Detroit neighborhood, warning residents their houses could be seized to make way for the bridge.

Anti-Moroun websites depict him as a slumlord willing to sacrifice economic growth in the depressed city for fatter profits.

The skirmishes foreshadow a summerlong battle between Moroun, 84, a trucking magnate, and Snyder, 52, a former executive.

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