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Signature bridge is back on the table Federal Highway Administration gives project a major boost

A ruling by a key federal regulator boosts the likelihood for a new cable-stayed companion to the Peace Bridge, just months after chances looked bleak, officials said Friday.

The Federal Highway Administration has cleared the way for a three-tower, cable-stayed bridge under 400 feet tall.

"I never thought we'd get this far," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y.

The federal agency rejected the 567-foot-tall bridge that a binational design jury said should be built across the Niagara River.

Federal and state agencies previously had warned a bridge that tall would pose a threat to migratory birds flying along the Niagara River and to common terns that nest on an outer breakwater in the Buffalo Harbor.

Chances for that design appeared doomed anyway because of Canada's objection to the height.

"The Canadians said nothing over 400 feet," Schumer said. "We could never have gotten it anyway."

The federal agency's decision means the Peace Bridge Authority can build something other than a triple-arched bridge, its choice as recently as April.

The bridge authority has three options left from the 33 companion and replacement concepts its design jury started out with in 2005:

*A 226-foot-high triple-arched span;

*A cable-stayed span with three towers about 350 feet high

*A cable-stayed span with a 295-foot tower on the Canadian side of the bridge, a 322-foot tower in the middle and a 350-foot tower on the U.S. side.

What's more, the agency said the Peace Bridge Authority can move forward and not wait for a bird study.

"We don't have to do a lengthy, time-consuming study," Schumer told The News.

The agency also suggested the final bridge design should be made after it issues a record of decision approving bridge-expansion plans.

"That's something we'll have to discuss with the city," said Ron Rienas, general manager of the bridge authority.

"The key thing is [the highway administration] has weighed in and come up with a position to allow us to move forward," Rienas said.

In April, after the federal and state agencies warned of the potential threat to birds, the bridge authority said it would abandon plans for the 567-foot bridge and pursue the triple-arch span.

The authority's announcement irked members of the congressional delegation, who vowed to challenge the regulatory agencies and fight for a cable-stayed signature bridge.

Soon, the highway administration agreed to take another look at the design.

After months of waiting, local officials on Friday heard back from the agency.

"We are only able to support a bridge with a vertical design less than 400 feet in height," Thomas J. Madison Jr., the highway administration's top administrator, wrote to Peace Bridge and state officials.

The decision doesn't mean Buffalo and Fort Erie, Ont., won't get a cable-stayed bridge, he said.

"Adoption of this height limitation does not unduly constrain design choices since the [draft environmental impact statement] bridge design alternatives include three bridge designs with maximum heights below the 400-foot limit: the triple arch and two other cable-stay designs," Madison wrote in his letter.

Schumer said he's relieved by the highway administration's decision, because for a while it looked like an arch bridge would be the only span the Peace Bridge Authority could build.

"This was nearly off the rails," Schumer said of a cable-stayed bridge design.

"It'll be a signature bridge. That's what we wanted," Schumer said.

Mayor Byron W. Brown wasn't available Friday, but his spokesman called the agency's ruling good news.

"From the administration's perspective, it's an important step forward," said mayoral spokesman Peter Cutler. "A signature bridge will be built as a result of this . . . decision."

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton said she's encouraged. "The people of Buffalo have been waiting a long time for the Peace Bridge project to begin, and what's most important is that we are doing what is necessary to have a bridge that serves the homeland security, commerce and transportation needs of Western New York," she said.

Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, said, "This decision is great news in that it will allow for the construction of the plaza to proceed by eliminating an obstacle primarily responsible for the delay we have seen since this past spring."

Higgins called for reconvening the design jury to deliberate on which of the remaining alternatives to pick. "That will be the speediest and soundest path to the eventual construction of a bridge that is essential to Western New York's economic future," Higgins said.

Schumer said he liked the idea of moving ahead without having to do a new bird study. "We couldn't afford two more years for a study that in likelihood would be inconclusive," Schumer said.

e-mail: plakamp@buffnews.com

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