After years of indecision and acrimony, those involved in the Peace Bridge dispute got the kind of high-powered boost Tuesday that just might get the project built.
Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer, becoming the first New York governor to address the Buffalo Common Council, said he would do all he can to help build a new Peace Bridge and rebuild the American plaza on the city's West Side.
"We are dedicated to making it happen," Spitzer said. "We are dedicated to getting it built."
At the governor's urging, Council members voted to approve publishing a draft environmental impact statement that identifies expansion of the existing American plaza at its current site as the likely option, if the project proceeds.
That vote, in addition to upcoming votes by the Town of Fort Erie, Ont., and the Peace Bridge Authority, is needed to move the environmental study into the next phase and toward final federal government approval next spring.
"It's a great step forward for the city," Spitzer said after witnessing the unanimous vote.
Seldom, if at all, have Peace Bridge officials enjoyed the kind of political support they've seen in recent weeks, particularly Tuesday. Though disappointed by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff's decision against putting U.S. customs and immigration screening on the Canadian side of the bridge, state and local government leaders have lined up with Bridge Authority officials to move the project ahead.
"After all these years, to have the governor of New York, the mayor of Buffalo and the Common Council president stand shoulder to shoulder to get the project done is a huge boost," said Ron Rienas, the Peace Bridge Authority's general manager.
Their show of support, plus the recent efforts of Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, "really is unprecedented," Rienas said.
"That type of leadership is critical," he added. "If it's a priority for the political leaders, it becomes a priority for the bureaucracies within government. That's what gets projects done."
During a meeting with The Buffalo News Editorial Board, Spitzer said the Homeland Security Department's ruling against shared border management means the federal government should help cover the higher cost of expanding the current U.S. plaza in Buffalo.
Spitzer said he would press for federal aid to help pay for the estimated $315 million it would cost to build the new bridge, plaza and connecting roads.
"Their decision, whatever the merits of it, not to proceed with shared border management, has now increased substantially the costs and the land needs on the U.S. side, and therefore they should be helpful to us," Spitzer said.
The governor also promised state aid. "State capital, if it's needed, will be there," Spitzer said.
After meeting with The News Editorial Board, the governor toured the Erie Canal Harbor area being reconstructed by the state. He expressed optimism about the potential for the harbor project and others under way throughout the area.
"The transformation here has been remarkable," he said of the harbor project. "This used to be a wasteland; it is no longer."
He also officially announced the appointments of Jordan Levy, managing general partner of Seed Capital Partners, as well as David Colligan, an attorney and environmentalist, as members of the board of directors of the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp.
The two replace Anthony H. Gioia and former Rep. Jack F. Quinn Jr.
He later met with members of the Amherst Industrial Development Agency to discuss his economic development priorities and then appeared before the Buffalo Common Council to talk about the Peace Bridge.
Mayor Byron W. Brown noted Spitzer's role in trying to solve the long-running Peace Bridge controversy as a way to improve the upstate economy.
"We've been talking about building a new Peace Bridge for over 20 years," Brown said. "This is a project that our governor has taken intense interest in."
Spitzer called the Council vote an important step -- but noted there's "obviously a long way to go."
He said he has heard from many Western New Yorkers over the years about how important it is to complete the project.
"When I would speak in the community and ask what can government do to assure prosperity, to assure growth, to assure that we continue to keep capital flowing in -- not flowing out -- there would be a two-word answer: Peace Bridge," Spitzer said.
Council Majority Leader Dominic J. Bonifacio, whose district includes the bridge plaza, said the Bridge Authority has agreed to buy additional properties between the existing plaza and Niagara Street so there is a larger buffer between the plaza and neighborhood.
That means properties on the plaza side of Niagara Street, north of Vermont Street and south of Hampshire Street, would be used as a buffer or even for a visitors center.
However, Peace Bridge officials have said they can't accommodate Bonifacio's wish to restore parkland at the edge of the bluff now occupied by the plaza.
While this area offers a dramatic view of Lake Erie and the Niagara River, it's also where customs officials would, in a reconfigured plaza, inspect truck drivers and cargo.
"We can't do it," Rienas said. "It's in the middle of a secure area."
News Political Reporter Robert J. McCarthy contributed to this report.