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Shared inspection plaza concept dropped Lawmakers blame failure of Peace Bridge talks on Bush administration

The Bush administration Wednesday said it has dropped plans to exchange customs inspectors on the Canadian border, raising the likelihood the Peace Bridge Authority will take more land on Buffalo's West Side for a new toll plaza.

Inspections -- both Canadian and American -- for trucks and autos would have been performed in Fort Erie, Ont., under a Shared Border Management plan first advanced in 2004. The program would have sent U.S. inspectors to Fort Erie to inspect American-bound vehicles.

Building the larger plaza in Buffalo could raise the cost of a new Peace Bridge to $334 million -- an increase between $17 million and $46 million more than the three shared border options. It would require taking 68 more residential and business properties than under the shared border plan.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., blamed the collapse of talks with Canadian security officials on Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and the "inflexibility" of the new Canadian government headed by Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

"He was not on top of this," Schumer said of Chertoff, adding that Chertoff's predecessor, Tom Ridge, "could have gotten this done."

Schumer quoted Chertoff as telling him in a phone call Wednesday that all the inspections can be done on the Buffalo side. Schumer said Chertoff missed the whole point of the project, which is to do all the inspections on the Canadian side where there is more acreage available.

Andrew Rudnick, president of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, agreed.

"Thomas Ridge had committed to find a way to make shared border management work," Rudnick said. "However, it has been clear that Mr. Chertoff's willingness to live up to that commitment has been sadly lacking."

"It seems that the [Department of Homeland Security] negotiators have looked for reasons not to fulfill their commitment instead of responding to the good-faith efforts of the Canadian government and the hard work of Buffalo Niagara's representatives in the House [of Representatives] and Senate," he said.

Rudnick warned that "ceasing negotiations on shared border management could prove detrimental to the overall economic and cultural relationship between the United States and Canada -- the world's largest trading partners."

Schumer, Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, Mayor Byron W. Brown and others said a new president and a new administration taking office in 2009 might prove to be more willing to make shared border management work.

But the Peace Bridge Authority had called on the government to make a decision about shared border management one way or another by May so it could proceed with plans for a new bridge.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., indicated that fresh demands by the Bush administration created a stumbling block that couldn't be overcome.

The Department of Homeland Security insisted that at the Peace Bridge, any vehicle that is turned back from entering the United States be apprehended by U.S. officials working in Fort Erie.

The driver and passengers in such a vehicle would be ordered to be fingerprinted. In January, Canadian Ambassador Michael Wilson said this would violate the Canadian Constitution, which provides no one may be arrested without probable cause.

In a letter to Chertoff, Clinton noted inspection services on the border are a federal responsibility.

"If the department is certain [Shared Border Management] cannot be achieved given the complex legal and sovereignty issues with Canada," Clinton said, "then the department must take responsibility in providing guidance, as well as the resources, to Buffalo and the state in developing a plan to address this problem. The city and the state cannot be made to shoulder this burden alone."

Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, D-Fairport, had a view different from Schumer's on willingness of Canada's new leadership to compromise.

While Schumer referred to the "inflexibility" of Harper's government, Slaughter said Canada "has time and again offered to compromise on the remaining issues. Regrettably, [the Department of Homeland Security] has declined to engage in a real conversation." She said the decision to terminate the talks was "unilateral" on Chertoff's part.
The decision shows the Bush administration "has taken a deeply flawed approach to the northern border," Slaughter said. ". . . Smart border policies have time and again been replaced with policies that thicken the border," she said.

Higgins said: "This decision demonstrates the inability of this administration to find a creative solution to a difficult problem." The administration, he said, "made up its mind about this a long time ago."

Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer, who has been closely monitoring the situation, also expressed disappointment that the issues could not be resolved. "As a state, we must now move forward to quickly address the economic and security impact of this decision on Buffalo and Western New York," he said.

Buffalo Common Council Majority Leader Dominic J. Bonifacio said he won't support a traditional, meaning expanded, plaza in Buffalo.

"One option is we just sit back and wait until there's a new administration in Washington that's more open-minded about homeland security," Bonifacio said.

Pursuing a bigger Buffalo plaza could lead to lawsuits, the councilman said.

News Staff Reporters Patrick Lakamp and Jerry Zremski contributed to this report.

e-mail: dturner@buffnews.com

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