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Efforts to turn the Peace Bridge into a major international gateway are focusing on plans for an American entrance plaza that would give developers both the steak and the sizzle.

"This should be an opportunity for this community to develop a plaza and a bridge and a neighborhood that is world-class," Mayor Masiello said after a closed-door meeting Friday involving the Buffalo-Niagara Partnership and Peace Bridge plaza planners.

"We should be looking at a larger plaza footprint, and we should be looking at more than a marginal improvement," added Thomas M. Daly, a leading customs broker and president of Tower Group International.

Both business and governmental leaders have questions about reconstruction of the existing bridge plaza, scheduled to begin in the next decade and be completed by 2010, said Partnership Executive Director Andrew J. Rudnick.

If a twin bridge is constructed, the U.S. plaza will include tollbooths for Canada-bound traffic and customs and immigration facilities for vehicles entering the United States. Peace Bridge administrators hope to ease congestion by constructing in Canada a 20-acre Commercial Vehicle Processing Center to check customs paperwork and preclear most trucks using the bridge.

With that facility scheduled to open in August 1999, the Peace Bridge Authority has insisted that its current plans -- involving a two-acre addition to the current 14-acre plaza -- provide enough room.

Others aren't so sure.

"If there's a silver lining in the whole SuperSpan process, it's the chance we have to revisit the whole plaza issue as well as the bridge design," Masiello said.

While declining to comment on details of Friday's meeting, he added that Buffalo needs "to ensure we're going to produce a plaza that is economically viable and an asset to the community."

"That's what's going to have to happen," the mayor said.

Daly said a more linear configuration, routing traffic south to the Carolina-Virginia interchange with the Niagara Thruway instead of through the tight curves of the Porter Avenue connections, "is one that makes a lot of sense."

"It's absolutely workable," he added. "We really ought to get beyond the issue of Front Park."

While part of "The Front" would be incorporated into bridge roads in a linear plaza design, much of the historic Olmsted-designed park could become part of the aesthetic "gateway" and Olmsted elements could be incorporated into nearby LaSalle Park, he suggested.

"If Front Park were not an issue, then there's a clean slate, figuratively speaking, and imaginative solutions could be developed," Daly said. "Another reason this plaza is so important is because it's not just a plaza -- it's a gateway."

Daly found it encouraging that the city "is now eager to work with the Peace Bridge and any other interested groups to develop an optimal solution to foster cross-border economic development."

"Somehow, this situation has to be resolved in a win-win solution very soon, because the longer it isn't, the more divisive it becomes," he added.

The customs broker said he was encouraged that legislators have taken up the issue of adequate customs staffing, but added that action is needed soon to capitalize on the trade advantages of the city's border position.

"The thing we do have here is a natural geographic advantage, which sets the stage for economic advantage," Daly said. "We're the only border crossing I know that's not taking advantage of that."

At separate Peace Bridge Authority meetings, bridge operations manager Stephen Mayer said the new Canadian processing center will offer some immediate relief from border truck congestion -- and should become increasingly unneeded, as border electronic processing technology develops.

"Our goal is to get everyone on the automated system," Mayer said. "When it opens, probably 30 percent of the trucks will have to stop at the Commercial Vehicle Processing Center. Our goal is to get it down to 2 to 3 percent."

For that reason, Mayer said, the new buildings constructed in Fort Erie will be of a "temporary nature," so that when the need for a significant processing operation decreases over the next several years, the buildings can be removed.

Bridge officials say they expect more and more trucks to be equipped with transponders and other electronic equipment to avoid the need for manual inspection. Marketplace competition, they say, will force most trucks to obtain the equipment to avoid the delays.

Mayer and Lawrence M. Meckler, Peace Bridge Authority vice chairman, acknowledged that the Buffalo and Fort Erie brokerage community is divided on whether or not more plaza space is needed. But they said U.S. Customs solidly backs the plan, with the idea the basic current plaza will serve the international community for the next 20 to 25 years.

Daly -- a backer of Route 219 corridor redevelopment as well as bridge improvements -- said an even longer, wider view is needed.

"During the past several weeks, great progress has been made in having various groups understand the economic development opportunities associated with cross-border trade," he added.

"There have been questions raised about a single span, twin bridges, and now there is a focus on plaza design. All of this has to be put in the context of a complete infrastructure that fosters cross-border development," he said. "I don't think we're there yet."

Peace Bridge Authority leaders and executives from SuperSpan Upper Niagara, a local business group proposing a dramatic replacement span instead of the authority's planned "twin," are scheduled to meet with the Partnership at month's end to provide answers to detailed bridge design questions.

SuperSpan also is continuing a series of design presentations, to bolster support for its concept of a signature bridge. Canadian Member of Parliament John Maloney, representing the Fort Erie-Lincoln Riding, said he is inviting the group to Ottawa to discuss the project.

"We want to give equal time to both parties," he said, noting that the Peace Bridge Authority already had discussed its plans with Canadian lawmakers and agencies.

"My concern is the SuperSpan group had not made any inquiries with me. It's certainly of concern to both Canada and the U.S., and I'm concerned about delays."

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