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Peace Bridge expansion gets boost from state
'Time to act' on acquiring, demolishing of properties

New York State will act by June to acquire and demolish all remaining properties needed to add seven inspection lanes and other improvements to the Peace Bridge plaza, the state's top economic-development official said Wednesday.

Sam Hoyt, who is also the new chairman of the Peace Bridge Authority, underscored a commitment delivered earlier in the day by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to expedite the long-delayed expansion project for the international span's U.S. plaza.

"The time to act for the Peace Bridge is long overdue, and I'm going to pursue it very aggressively," the governor told reporters after a session highlighting the just-adopted state budget at the Burchfield Penney Art Center at Buffalo State College.

Hoyt indicated after Cuomo's remarks that New York is prepared to exercise its power of eminent domain, if necessary, to demolish seven properties along Busti Avenue and acquire the former Episcopal Church Home complex, as well as part of Busti itself from the City of Buffalo to accommodate the project.

The move, for the first time, commits the state's condemnation powers -- unavailable to the Peace Bridge Authority -- to the project, while underscoring the resolve to expedite what Hoyt called a crucial economic-development goal.

"It's a very clear message that this is our top priority in transportation infrastructure in Western New York and maybe all of upstate New York," said Hoyt, regional president of Empire State Development Corp. "We will do everything we can to make it happen quickly."

Cuomo addressed about 300 supporters and virtually every top government official in Western New York in the first of a series of statewide gatherings to highlight adoption of the second on-time and balanced state budget in a row. He and other top leaders congratulated each other on the bipartisan effort that he said has helped erase Albany's reputation as host of a "dysfunctional" state government.

"Government in Albany was a joke on late-night TV," he told his enthusiastic audience. "We have come a long way, my friends."

Deep within the new $132.6 billion budget is a $15 million state contribution toward a downsized plaza project that Hoyt pegged at between $85 million and $100 million. The new plan expands the current plaza from 17 acres to 25, replacing an earlier 37-acre proposal.

But any project associated with the Peace Bridge has long been marked by delay, and Hoyt said the state Department of Transportation -- and its power to condemn lands for public projects by eminent domain -- will now be introduced as a partner in the project. The idea now is to put the plaza on the fast track by order of Cuomo.

"He's directed me to do whatever it takes to get it done," Hoyt said.

Hoyt also said the binational Peace Bridge Authority is unanimous in its desire to accelerate the proposal.

Peace Bridge General Manager Ron Reinas explained that the authority has owned seven properties for many years along Busti Avenue between Vermont and Rhode Island streets. But the state's involvement now allows bridge officials to negotiate the purchase or condemn a lone holdout at 775 Busti. Properties on a small section of Rhode Island between Busti and Columbus Parkway are also part of the proposal.

The plan also calls for acquiring the city block housing the abandoned Episcopal Church Home, and was explained to residents during a neighborhood meeting Wednesday afternoon.

"This is our opportunity to finally remove the blight that's been there for so long and free up the land for the next step," Reinas said.

Reinas added that some of the acquisitions may prove complex because of liens placed against some of the properties, including the Episcopal complex. The authority would like to preserve the historic stone chapel there and restore it for another use, he said, but rapid deterioration also makes immediate action a priority.

The new proposal represents a much smaller-scale project than the earlier proposal that involved "many more properties," Reinas emphasized. He said the new concept relocates the duty-free facility toward the Episcopal Church Home, enabling expansion of new inspection booths into the current duty-free site. A reconfigured internal roadway that minimizes interactions between cars and trucks is also part of the new plan, he added.

Hoyt said that negotiations continue with the owners of 775 Busti and that they are aware of the eminent domain power that the state is ready to flex. Steps are under way to purchase all other properties involved, he said, and Mayor Byron W. Brown will expedite acquiring city-owned properties.

Cuomo has directed him to accelerate the process, Hoyt said, because of the economic-development potential involved and the long lack of action.

"Frankly, it's embarrassing to cross over to the Canadian side and see a state-of-the-art plaza, state-of-the-art inspection facilities and state-of-the-art offices, while on the U.S. side, everything is unorganized, inefficient and old," Hoyt said.

Hoyt said the area's professional sports teams, malls and retail outlets will "suffer greatly" without new measures to move border traffic more quickly.