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THE BINATIONAL BRIDGE EFFORT

Whatever shape this century's version of the Peace Bridge takes, it will be a binational effort to span the Niagara River. Canadians and Americans alike can and must insist on a spirit of partnership.

That spirit should extend to funding as well as decision-making. Some officials now think a mutually acceptable bridge will cost $150 million more than what the Peace Bridge Authority can afford. But if building a better bridge means tapping governmental sources instead of just relying on Bridge Authority bonds and revenues, Ottawa should hear the call as clearly as Washington.

There are valid reasons for leaning more heavily toward American assistance for the more extensive plaza and roadway approach work that must be done on American soil.

But Canadians, who have insisted that their opinions carry equal weight with American concerns about an expanded Buffalo-Fort Erie crossing, should understand that both countries will benefit from a new bridge. If Ottawa needs to pay a portion of that $150 million to make this project work, it will be an investment that will pay off for Canada, even if a majority of that extra funding goes for infrastructure on the American side.

While Canadians may not relish footing any of the bill for what many of them see as an American push for symbolism instead of substance, the last thing this project needs is a sign proclaiming "paid for by Americans."

Long after this dispute and all its current participants are dead and buried, the new Niagara River bridge will be carrying traffic between two closely linked nations. The civic dividends from a world-class bridge will accrue to both sides of the border. Now that the authority has united behind the concept of building the best bridge possible, and has enlisted the aid of world-renowned designers, it is self-defeating to begin bickering over which country should pay. The answer, for a binational project, is obvious: Both should contribute.

While the bridge itself is an equally shared responsibility, the varying costs of Canadian and American plaza work may influence the final cost-sharing. But if any case can be made for asking the United States to pay more for this project, it should not rest on the need and desire for a world-class bridge.

A stronger rationale involves the cost of a new entrance plaza and roadway-approach system on the Buffalo end of the bridge -- a proper target for American dollars provided either through federal highway funding or line-item infrastructure improvement projects won by local congressional delegation members.

The binational Peace Bridge Authority, which will come up with the first $200 million or so of the bridge project, already has funded construction of a major commercial vehicle processing center on the Canadian side of the border, providing Fort Erie the benefits of construction jobs and economic spin-offs. It will fund a share of the American side improvements as well, but expanding and improving a plaza in the much more constricted environs of a larger and more densely settled city will require more extensive and expensive work on American road networks and the American gateway plaza.

America and Canada have forged a special partnership in many areas. That spirit ought to continue as both Buffalo and Fort Erie seek to build a bridge that symbolizes that partnership.

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