LANSING, Mich. (AP) -- Michigan won approval Friday to build a second bridge between Detroit and Canada, a key step toward starting construction on the $3.5 billion project intended to relieve truck congestion and speed up trade at the busiest northern U.S. border crossing.
A permit awarded by the U.S. Department of State allows Michigan and Windsor, Ontario, to move forward with the span over the Detroit River. Construction of the bridge could start in 2015 and the entire project — including the bridge, interchange ramps and customs plazas — could be finished by 2020.
Lawsuits challenging the bridge, though, have been filed by a lawmaker and the owners of the 83-year-old Ambassador Bridge, currently the lone bridge between Detroit and Windsor.
The presidential permit is a requirement for all U.S. border crossing projects with Canada and Mexico and comes 10 months after Gov. Rick Snyder and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper struck a deal calling for Canada to pay for the span over the Detroit River. It also follows Michigan voters' rejection last fall of a $33 million ballot measure backed by the Ambassador Bridge owners that would have slowed or halted construction.
The State Department said in a statement that the New International Trade Crossing will "serve the national interest."
"The NITC will help to meet future capacity requirements in a critical travel corridor, promote cross-border trade and commerce, and advance our vital bilateral relationship with Canada," the agency said.
Snyder, a Republican, is a huge proponent of the bridge and reached his own interlocal agreement with Canada in June 2012 after running into opposition in the GOP-led Legislature. He estimated the construction projects will create 12,000 construction jobs and said 200,000 Michigan jobs stemming from trade with Canada will be solidified with a new span.
"I view this as a huge win for Detroit and Michigan, and for the United States and Canada and all of North America," Snyder told The Associated before joining U.S. and Canadian officials in formally announcing the permit approval at a Detroit logistics company not far from where the bridge will be built. "It's time to go and get this going."
Canadian Labor Minister Lisa Raitt said the 8,000 trucks crossing the Ambassador Bridge each day carry a quarter of all U.S.-Canada trade.
"This crossing is part of our entire commitment to a secure and efficient border," she said.
Though Canada is covering the cost of the span, Snyder anticipates Canadians working on the Ontario side and Americans working on the Michigan side, and hopes to train Detroiters so they are hired for skilled jobs. The project has broad support from business, labor and political figures.
But hurdles remain to constructing the bridge two miles south of the Ambassador Bridge.
In a federal lawsuit, bridge owner Manuel "Matty" Moroun claims a "perpetual and exclusive franchise right" to operate the bridge free of competition and questions the constitutionality of a 1972 law giving the State Department authority to approve international bridges. A competing bridge would cut into toll profits enjoyed by Moroun.
State Rep. Fred Durhal, D-Detroit, sued in Ingham County, challenging Snyder's authority to forge the agreement with Canada.
Snyder has called the suits a delay tactic.
"Our track record is good and we're on strong legal ground," Snyder said.
Construction of the government bridge itself is estimated to cost about $950 million. Canada has promised to take on Michigan's $550 million portion with revenue from future tolls paying off the debt, and Michigan can use it for matching federal funds for state highway projects. Canada also will pay for an interchange linking the span to Interstate 75 on the American side. The U.S. will pay for its own customs plaza.
Canada will hire a private entity to design, build, operate and maintain the bridge through a 40- to 50-year partnership.
Detroit-based Consul General of Canada Roy Norton said he is "thrilled" the permit was granted as expected, calling it the last major piece needed to move ahead.
Initial steps will be relocating utility lines and identifying which properties need to be seized and bought under Michigan's eminent domain power. Canada will pay for the land, some of which was strategically purchased by the Moroun family to make it more difficult to start construction, Norton said.
A message seeking comment was left with an official with the Ambassador Bridge company.
Email David Eggert at deggert(at)ap.org and follow him at http://twitter.com/DavidEggert00