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PEACE BRIDGE DESIGN BATTLE MAY BE IN D'AMATO'S HANDS

Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan sounded the right note Sept. 20 when he encouraged two (or more?) groups of Buffalo leaders to press for a review of current plans to "twin" the Peace Bridge.

He was right when he said there is plenty of money to do the job right. He rightly encouraged the recruitment of a world-renowned firm to try coming up with a design for a world-class span.

Yet the best idea supported by the brightest and most high-minded people put forth at the most promising moment can readily fail without adding power to the recipe.

Most of that power resides today in Albany, in the office of Gov. Pataki, and in the Hart Senate Office Building -- in the office of Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato. Just why will be explained later.

We'll take a bit of space to review the need to stop the current project. Customs Broker Tom Daly is absolutely right when he says the authority is proceeding headlong without an overall economic plan.

Proof of that is the authority's recent $11.1 million contract for a U.S. Customs inspection station in Canada when there is no apparent reason to believe American inspectors will ever work there.

The architect-reformers are absolutely right when they say the authority's project will further desecrate the Gateway to the U.S., and forever foreclose the opportunity to do something brilliant that would put a stamp on Buffalo's place in the world.

On the other side are the authority's lame arguments that it is too late to do the job right, and that the money isn't -- contrary to what Moynihan says -- really there.

The authority's posings would be laughable if the agency didn't have so much clout. There is no politician in America that has more knowledge about authorities and public works funding than Moynihan.

As secretary to Gov. Harriman, Moynihan was working with state authorities -- including those run by the vaunted Robert Moses -- when those who would later build the World Trade Center and the stunning suspension bridge across the Narrows were still in college.

Moynihan wrote the laws that would provide the money.

The lapse in time is strictly the authority's fault. The agency wrecked every outside plan put forth in the 1980s to speed truck traffic across the bridge. Buffalo lost more than a decade because of the authority's indolence and its capers.

The authority says it can't get the money Moynihan is talking about because it doesn't want somebody else's money. It says there is no time, speciously, because it wants to obviate change.

Real political power, though, is required to change the course the Peace Bridge Authority is now dedicated to. First, an understanding of authorities.

They were created to do things legislatures couldn't do because politicians tend to carve up projects.

Left to their own devices, authorities tend to behave like moles. They work in the dark without anybody's oversight. They fill their gut with money. They dig and gobble real estate without restraint, and they excrete concrete wherever they find open space.

It takes a governor to get an authority to lift its sights. Three decades ago, then Gov. Rockefeller told a reluctant Port of New York Authority to build the World Trade Center, or else. And it did, just like that!

Governors are the only critters that can stop these moles from digging, swallowing and so forth.

A very big part of Buffalo's problems with transportation issues is that the authorities that operate there suffered from 12 years of Gov. Cuomo's benign neglect. He thought appointments to these agencies were throwaways.

He claimed, when challenged about these weak appointments, that "I don't really know anybody up there" to give him good names.

Some, but not enough, has changed under Gov. Pataki, who does in fact know people up there. The fact is that because of Cuomo's and Pataki's mostly uninspired appointments, the Peace Bridge Authority's decisions are staff driven.

Actually, Attorney General Dennis Vacco, breaking with tradition, now treats his chair as patronage. Originally, the AG's chair was intended to keep the authority's operations in tight conformity with the law. But Vacco has handed off his vote on the authority board to a political friend.

So, unlike similar appointments to New York City-based authorities, the ones in Buffalo are not taken all that seriously by the governors or this attorney general.

Since the Cuomo days, names that would never be considered in Manhattan are too often good enough for Buffalo.

When politically challenged, which is hardly ever, the Peace Bridge staff runs to the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority for cover. The NFTA's patrons are really D'Amato and the governor. They can make the difference on this and other crucial transportation issues.

For the senator, who has much more experience and knowledge of the intricacies of Buffalo's tangled politics than his friend in Albany, the responsibility to intervene may be the greater. The reformers need D'Amato's interest. And they don't yet have it.

For a solid week, D'Amato has ducked comment on the matter.

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