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Peace Bridge board weighs options on U.S. plaza, won't rush decision

Peace Bridge officials said they will not rush to get an approval for a bigger, more expensive plaza in Buffalo now that Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has ruled out shifting U.S. customs and immigration screening to the Canadian side of the bridge.

But the Peace Bridge Authority may not be able to build anything else, officials said Friday.

Members of the authority's board of directors said they like the idea of a shared inspection plaza in Fort Erie -- and they expressed "deep disappointment" that efforts to approve the concept have failed.

They already have waited through more than two years of unsuccessful negotiations between U.S. and Canadian officials. Some board members, therefore, are cool to the suggestion they wait for a new president and a new administration to take office in 2009 so that the idea can be reconsidered.

"We're not going to decide tomorrow," said Paul J. Koessler of Buffalo, the board's vice chairman. "But we can't wait indefinitely on the hope shared border management will come.

Koessler promised "the best possible plaza," regardless of its size.

"The authority is 100 percent committed to working with Mayor [Byron W.] Brown and the City of Buffalo to construct the best possible plaza, redevelop the West Side and construct a grand gateway into the city," he said. "We did it in Fort Erie, and we will do nothing less for Buffalo."

Still, Buffalo Common Council Majority Leader Dominic J. Bonifacio, whose district includes the bridge plaza, urged the board to wait before moving ahead on a traditional border-screening setup in Buffalo.

Maybe Western New York's congressional delegation can reverse Chertoff's decision, or perhaps a new president and homeland security secretary will do so in a couple of years, he said.

Bonifacio has said he won't support a traditional plaza at the current site. Improvements on the Buffalo side of the border crossing since late 2005 -- including adding three inspection lanes and booths, mainly for trucks, and moving tollbooths to Fort Erie -- have eased congestion and lessened the need for a quick decision, he said.

"We're hardly rushing," Koessler replied, noting that the current environmental study began in October 2001 and that earlier expansion efforts stretch back decades.

"I don't necessarily agree with those who say let's wait for the next administration," said Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, D-Buffalo.

But he urged the board to give the congressional delegation enough time to fight Chertoff's position.

For now, the authority is in a wait-and-see mode, said John A. Lopinski of Port Colborne, Ont., the board's chairman.

Board members must decide whether to continue waiting for a shared border and, if so, for how long.

Schoetz warned that a bigger Buffalo plaza may be required -- regardless of the expansion project's status.

"There will be a second shoe that will be dropped," Schoetz said. "Homeland security will now come to the bridge and say it wants a plaza redone in the post- 9/1 1 world. We are in the worst of both worlds: We don't have shared border management, and they'll want a larger plaza. It's not a pleasant bind to be in."

e-mail: plakamp@buffnews.com

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