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Local officials try to bridge decision gap Issue May deadline to Homeland Security on Peace Bridge plaza

After waiting two years, local leaders will give Homeland Security officials only a few months to work out the details of relocating American border inspections to the Canadian side of the Peace Bridge.

Otherwise, they're likely to give up on the idea.

"If they can't give us an answer by then, we'll have to go to the alternative that does not use shared border management," said Paul Koessler of Buffalo, the Peace Bridge Authority's chairman.

That would mean any new Peace Bridge plaza in Buffalo would be larger and more expensive. The fumes and noise of idling trucks would be kept in the West Side neighborhood. And a chance to restore parkland would be missed.

"That would create a mistake that we'd have to live with for 100 years," said Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, D-Fairport.

That's assuming City Hall would even permit such a plaza.

Koessler said the May deadline could be softened if the two federal governments were near an agreement.

Meanwhile, on the Canadian side of the Peace Bridge, the bridge authority has spent about $36 million over the past two years upgrading the Fort Erie plaza with new buildings -- and it can still accommodate U.S. inspection facilities.

Workers are now putting finishing touches on the $16.5 million customs building, a canoe-shaped inspection facility expected to open by mid-February.

Peace Bridge officials opened their new $6.2 million, three-story administration building in September. And a new $5.8 million refugee-processing facility opened last month.

The Canadian plaza upgrade has won praise for its aesthetic standards.

The authority has also improved the Buffalo side of the border crossing, adding three inspection lanes and booths -- mainly for trucks -- and removing the tollbooths.

"In the time people have talked about shared border management, we completed a rework of our Canadian and U.S. plazas," said Ron Rienas, the authority's general manager. "We get things done, if we have control over the project. But we don't control [a] shared border."

Optimism ran high in December 2004, when U.S. and Canadian authorities announced a pilot project to allow U.S. customs and immigration screening on the Canadian side of the Peace Bridge.

Local officials hailed it as a breakthrough.

Cars and trucks bound for the United States would be able to roll across the bridge into Buffalo without stopping for tolls or inspections and proceed directly to the Niagara Thruway or into the city.

Local officials thought the announcement would mean the overall project would be approved sooner, despite a slight delay in publishing the draft environmental document. Shrinking the U.S. plaza would remove potential obstacles, like buying nearby properties or mitigating health concerns of a large plaza with idling trucks.

But putting together the shared border plan has taken longer than anyone envisioned.

"We assumed the issues had been far enough resolved for them to make that announcement," Rienas said. "Clearly, that was not the case."

Indeed, more progress has been made toward a shared border agreement between the two nations in the past three weeks than in all of the previous months, Slaughter said.

They've agreed on issues involving firearms, arrest powers and information gathering. But Canada has resisted a Homeland Security Department demand to fingerprint those who approach the bridge but then decide not to cross.

Slaughter said she talked on the telephone for 40 minutes with Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff on Thursday, and she plans to meet with him Tuesday. Russ Knocke, a Homeland Security Department spokesman, said Chertoff and Stockwell Day, Canada's minister of public safety, discussed the shared border issue during their meeting Thursday in Washington.

"They're not giving an inch," Slaughter said of Homeland Security's position on fingerprinting.

The pilot project was announced by Tom Ridge, the previous Homeland Security secretary.

"I don't think they want to do it," Slaughter said of Chertoff and his assistants. "Once we solve one problem, they come up with another one."

But Democrats like Rep. Brian Higgins in the House and Sen. Charles E. Schumer in the Senate have pressed the Bush administration to approve a shared border plan. And now that Democrats control both the House and Senate, they may be able to exert enough pressure to get an agreement, Slaughter said.

Consultants working on the environmental study have done analyses on air quality, noise levels, and potential impacts on heritage and architectural sites under both scenarios -- shared border or traditional plaza, Rienas said.

Homeland Security officials a year ago approved a site plan that sets aside space for American customs officers on the Fort Erie plaza. And Buffalo officials have reached a consensus on the U.S. plaza alternatives to study further in the environmental analysis.

But without a Homeland Security decision on a shared border by May, there's little chance of gaining a formal "record of decision" indicating federal government approval of the expansion plan by the end of the year, Rienas said.

If it doesn't come, the decision about how to proceed would be made by the bridge project's partnering group of Buffalo, Fort Erie and Peace Bridge Authority officials, Rienas said.

"Either we're prepared to wait longer or we proceed with a traditional plaza," he said. "At some point, we have to select a preferred alternative and move forward."

Local leaders advised Western New York's congressional delegation of their deadline in a recent letter.

"We understand there are difficult legal and operational issues, but surely two years should be enough time to make a determination as to whether border preclearance is viable or not," said the letter, signed by Koessler, Mayor Byron W. Brown and Fort Erie Mayor Douglas Martin. "Should there be no agreement by the early spring of 2007, then there will be no alternative but to revert to a traditional plaza in Buffalo if we are to achieve a record of decision by the end of 2007."


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