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LET'S AIM HIGHER IN BRIDGE DELIBERATIONS

As state legislators, one of us represents the district from which the Peace Bridge crosses the Niagara River into Canada, the other the district to the north where a proposed new "Tonawanda crossing" would be built. Together, we call for a far more comprehensive, coordinated and visionary approach to enhancing regional border crossings, and for the construction of a new border crossing from the Town of Tonawanda to Canada, south of Grand Island.

Think about it. What if there were no federal highway system, no state roadways or county routes? What if each individual municipality did its own thing when it came to mapping streets -- planning roads that made sense for getting from the school to the library to the shopping center without having to account for the flow of traffic and commerce from county to county and state to state across our vast country? It seems pretty clear to us that much of the economic and social growth that has accompanied transportation improvements simply would not have happened.

Thankfully, there are engineers and other experts who plan not only for geographic breadth but also for future growth, who, in other words, take responsibility for seeing "the big picture." That, indeed, should be the focus of the current Peace Bridge deliberations.

The Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority is to be commended for undertaking a comprehensive public process for planning a response to capacity needs that are expected to skyrocket in the future.

Its directors admit, though, that the scope of their mission and authority is limited. Even if a crossing at another location makes eminent sense, as we and others believe a Tonawanda crossing does, the authority is constrained by its charter, its finances and its limited mission from seriously considering building other than at or very near to the current bridge location.

The stakes for our region are enormous. Ease of travel is every bit as much a vital component of growth and progress as it was when the digging of the Erie Canal helped transform Buffalo into a booming center of commerce. There is a vibrant economy to our north with which we should be engaged in a mutually beneficial synergy, and a trade corridor from Toronto to the Buffalo Niagara region to some of the most populous areas of the United States that is poised to grow -- but only if we have border crossings that are efficient and secure enough to accommodate future commercial traffic.

Optimally, we believe that means a new bridge (or tunnel!) between Tonawanda and Canada south of Grand Island. This would connect the QEW -- and possibly, eventually a new mid-peninsula highway in Ontario -- with the I-190 and the Youngmann Highway (I-290), as well as the mainline Thruway (I-90).

Such a crossing scores highest not only from a transportation planning and economic development standpoint but also with regard to neighborhood and quality-of-life issues, since a Tonawanda crossing would make U.S. landfall in an industrial rather than a residential area.

It could also mean both a Tonawanda crossing and increased capacity and plaza improvements at the current Peace Bridge location. After all, bridges have life spans well in excess of 100 years, and projections show the number of crossings at this location significantly multiplying in the future.

A concomitant focus at the existing site would allow us to make necessary improvements to create a magnificent gateway: a realigned plaza, improved roadway connections, reclamation of Front Park.

And two crossings in the Buffalo metropolitan area would not only improve convenience but also provide for alternate routing -- if needed for maintenance, safety or national security reasons, for instance.

The point is, we will never know what it should mean unless the state and federal governments step up to the plate and bring their greater resources and larger vision to this planning process. Other members of our region's state legislative delegation have joined us in sending a letter to Gov. George Pataki urging his leadership in this effort. We invite other government, business and community leaders who do not want to see this opportunity squandered to lend their voices to the cause.

Time is of the essence. The State of Michigan will not wait while we consider our options. Indeed, it is already advancing its interests in Washington, Toronto and Ottawa in regard to its own border crossings. Site selectors and corporate planners will not hold off on business decisions because we are deliberating possible actions.

New York State, U.S. and Canadian transportation officials must accept the "big picture" responsibility that is rightfully theirs and should join in supporting the inclusion of the Tonawanda crossing in the current Peace Bridge Expansion Project process.

We believe they will concur that a new binational crossing originating in Tonawanda offers today's best option for accommodating, facilitating and inspiring tomorrow's progress.

ROBIN SCHIMMINGER and SAM HOYT represent the Buffalo Niagara region in the State Assembly.