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With the year coming to a close, this is an ideal time for community leaders, both in the private and public sectors, to step back and re-evaluate plans for the new and expanded crossing of the Niagara River at the Peace Bridge.

The need for these improvements is, as it has been for years, unquestioned.

Commercial truck traffic is up 40 percent in this decade. Existing facilities at the bridge and its Canadian and, particularly, U.S. entrances are cramped at a critical location where 20 percent of all U.S.-Canadian trade crosses the international border.

This necessity for the improvements about which everyone agrees also presents an opportunity to make them not only functional and effective, but a memorable statement of the friendship between the United States and Canada.

The controversy that the required changes have aroused is not over broad goals but how to reach them.

The Peace Bridge Commission wants to twin the existing Peace Bridge with a second span to its south. But this would retain the Parker truss on the existing bridge, an arch many consider ungainly. A second idea, for a single new and larger bridge running from Ft. Erie to LaSalle Park, comes from businessman Jack Cullen and his associate, architect Clinton Brown. So far, though, specifics are few, and encroaching on LaSalle Park conflicts with Mayor Masiello's preferences.

Recently, Frederick Gottemoeller, architect of the twin span preferred by the commission, suggested that the commission, "when it comes time to rehabilitate the existing bridge," seriously consider a third option: Replacing the Parker truss on the Peace Bridge with a twin of the larger, more dramatic arch Gottemoeller has designed for the new bridge.

This perceptive idea is worthy of any re-evaluation of the Peace Bridge crossing by bridge authorities -- who have rightly indicated an interest in it -- and by community leaders. Let everyone weigh it carefully as to cost, timing, environmental and other factors. But Gottemoeller's larger, graceful arch twinned to replace the Parker truss would enhance the visual impact of two side-by-side bridges at the American end.

Important elements other than the bridge design itself demand community attention as well.

Not the least is a growing consensus of leaders outside the bridge commission that its plans for a plaza to handle traffic at the American entrance is cramped and barely adequate. Considering the mixture of thousands of private cars and heavy commercial trucks that must be processed daily by customs and moved quickly through the plaza, crossing lanes as they head toward the Niagara Section of the Thruway, these doubts should not be dismissed.

Space must be adequate not only for existing traffic, but for future growth. The plaza ought to be spacious, pleasant and convenient in ways that invite and encourage increased commercial volume. Better to err with too much space than too little.

A final element in all of this relates to the leaders at various levels of government -- city, state, federal and Canadian -- who must be brought into the review process.

Fortunately, the Greater Buffalo Partnership is providing a kind of common meeting place for the commission, its critics and others in order to establish criteria and crystallize opinions, nudging movement toward an elusive consensus.

With respect to the plaza, for example, it is exploring federal requirements for customs and immigration, along with vehicle circulation, the plaza's impact on economic development and on Buffalo neighborhoods, as well as its gateway image.

In simple terms, then, the Niagara region has a rare opportunity to encourage the expanding commerce that surges across the border here with new facilities. It has the chance to manage all traffic better, with an emphasis on ease and convenience for truckers and visitors -- while, at the same time, making this international border crossing a striking signature of our two nations and communities.

Because that is difficult, the challenge tests and stretches the leadership in the bridge commission and the community. It requires leaders to disengage from entrenched positions and reach beyond with confidence and vision.

Their decisions today can affect this border for 100 years. To act wisely, they will need creativity and cooperation -- a willingness to give and take as they reach for that shared goal. No one should doubt the long-term value of that commanding effort.

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