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Old plan is water under the new bridge

Rep. Brian Higgins and Mayor Byron W. Brown on Wednesday joined forces to scrap the proposed Shared Border Management plan at the Peace Bridge and move quickly to start construction of a new bridge in 2010.

Shared Border Management was a proposal to use U.S. inspectors in Canada to speed southbound truck traffic and avoid building a large inspection plaza on Buffalo's West Side.

Monday, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff reiterated his objections to the effort, which has stalled studies for the new bridge for almost three years.

Andrew J. Rudnick, president of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, and Paul Koessler, vice chairman of the Peace Bridge Authority, said Wednesday they prefer building an inspection plaza in Fort Erie but are willing to deal with the reality that the Bush administration won't approve Shared Border Management.

Rudnick said expanding the plaza in Buffalo is not the preferred solution, but acknowledged "it may come to that," given the attitude of the present administrations in Ottawa and Washington.

"The time is right to commence with building a new Peace Bridge as quickly as possible," said Brown, who also favored having inspection handled in Fort Erie. But the mayor warned an expanded plaza on the West Side must provide for orderly development of adjacent neighborhoods.

Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer also supported moving quickly to expand the bridge.

Spitzer's spokeswoman, Christine Anderson, said, "We are looking at a variety of solutions, including plans that think beyond the footprint of the bridge plaza.

"If done correctly, this could also help Mayor Brown spur development of the West Side of Buffalo while achieving greater security enhancements."

Higgins, D-Buffalo, wrote to Chertoff asking the Bush administration to write a lease agreement for Customs and Border Protection facilities long enough to help the authority borrow against the cost of the new bridge.

He also asked Chertoff to work "expeditiously" to help the authority design the inspection plaza in Buffalo.

Higgins' initiative may put him at odds with Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., who has used the possibility of Shared Border Management as backdrops for news conferences in Buffalo, and with his Democratic House colleague, Louise M. Slaughter of Fairport.

Schumer declined several requests for comment. And Slaughter, who has made Shared Border Management a pillar of her efforts to speed traffic across the border, said through spokesman Frank Benenati she will continue to work for the plan at other border crossings even though "it may not be possible in Buffalo."

An early draft of the environmental impact statement for the bridge expansion project is now being circulated at the Federal Highway Administration and the state Department of Transportation.

After a 30-day waiting period, both agencies will submit any changes to be included in the final draft -- the draft environmental impact statement is set to be published next month.

A final finding, called a record of decision, is slated for early next year, making a construction start possible in 2010.

e-mail: dturner@buffnews.com

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