Call it Western New York's version of the bridge to nowhere. Unlike the infamous Alaska project of questionable utility, this bridge is of undeniable benefit. But despite years on the drawing board, it can't get built. There is no peace for the Peace Bridge project.
This is not entirely the fault of the Bush administration. The delays predate the president's election by many years. Nevertheless, his administration is now the primary obstacle. Specifically, it is holding up progress by demanding that another country, Canada, change its civil rights laws.
If that's not obnoxious enough, what the administration wants is to force Canada to adopt the American government's dim view of civil liberties by allowing travelers to be fingerprinted if they approach the bridge but then decide not to cross. Canadian law allows fingerprinting only upon arrest.
The issue behind this squabble is shared border management, a forward-looking plan that would allow Customs functions for both countries to be located on one side of the border -- in this case, Fort Erie. The change would benefit Canada by putting more jobs over there, but it is especially useful to Buffalo.
With shared border management, Buffalo could avoid demolishing a residential area to accommodate a Customs and Immigration plaza, whose existence would subject nearby homeowners to hours of exhaust fumes daily. Without the need for that installation, Buffalo could also reclaim all or part of historic Front Park, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted. Buffalo can do those things if only Canada will change a fundamental law. Why would Canada ever demur?
The resistance of the Department of Homeland Security is verging on the preposterous, to the point that Rep. Louise Slaughter sees the department as a kind of coalition of the unwilling. "I don't think they want to do it," she said. "Once we solve one problem, they come up with another one."
It does, indeed, seem that way, and while the arrival of a new administration two years from now could change things, this project has been held up for far too long. That's why we like the idea of the fish-or-cut-bait deadline announced by Paul Koessler, chairman of the Peace Bridge Authority.
Koessler said if the governments of the United States and Canada can't come to a decision about shared border management by May, then the authority will have to proceed with the traditional alternative. It's not an unreasonable position. Shared border management has been the subject of allegedly serious discussion for two years. If the countries want to do this, they'll resolve the issues. If they can't, it would be a shame that a once-in-a-lifetime decision was a wrong one.
Rep. Brian Higgins likes the idea of putting the governments on notice. "Deadlines provide leverage," said the Buffalo congressman, whose district includes the bridge. He used a credible deadline threat once before to move this project off the dime, and he thinks it's time to do so again.
So do we. We hope it results in a commitment by the two countries to resolve this problem. But what is most important now is to get this project moving.