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Federal funding for plaza dries up ; Will further delay Peace Bridge project

The federal government has no immediate plans to fund the $300 million Peace Bridge plaza project on Buffalo's West Side, the Department of Homeland Security confirmed on Friday.

And the absence of funding for the controversial plaza project will mean yet another delay in the oft-delayed expansion of the Peace Bridge, since the environmental impact statement needed for that project's approval is tied to the plaza's construction.

"Given the size of the project and the expected paucity of federal funds in out years, there are not any immediate plans to move forward with modifications to the bridge or structure" at the Buffalo-Fort Erie border crossing, an official at Customs and Border Protection said in an e-mail to the Bar-Code Border, a Canadian newsletter on trade and transportation.

A spokesman for the border agency, part of the Department of Homeland Security, confirmed that the quotes in the newsletter were accurate.

Funds are so tight, the federal officials said, that the government has no plans to fund any major construction along the border. That means improvements at the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge, Alexandria Bay, Detroit and Port Huron also cannot count on federal funding.

"These projects require a significant investment by multiple federal agencies and the respective port authorities," a Customs and Border Protection official said in another e-mail. "At this time, funding for such projects is not secured for our current fiscal plan."

The federal government's funding decision comes as a harsh blow to the Peace Bridge Authority, which has been pushing the plaza project for years over neighborhood objections, and to the Western New York delegation, which is fighting for the funding.

"Over the last 18 months, DHS and GSA [the General Services Administration] have expressed concerns about being able to fund practically every existing infrastructure project," said Ron Rienas, general manager of the Peace Bridge Authority. "All of them are in the same bind."

The authority has long counted on the prospect of federal funding for the proposed new truck plaza, which aims to accommodate the vast number of trucks inspected by federal agents before crossing into Canada.

In contrast, the planned companion span next to the Peace Bridge is set to be funded through the sale of bonds, which eventually will be paid off using toll revenue, Rienas said.

Nevertheless, the two projects are linked in the environmental planning process, so a plaza delay will slow down bridge construction as well, said Rienas, who previously indicated bridge construction could begin as soon as the summer of 2012.

The current version of the plaza proposal calls for the taking of 108 nearby homes, and residents have fought fiercely against it, saying it would damage a historic neighborhood.

The project prompted the National Trust for Historic Preservation to designate the area near Front Park, Prospect Hill and Columbus Park as one of the nation's most-threatened historic sites in 2008.

The Peace Bridge Authority and other supporters of the project pressed onward nevertheless, shrinking the size of the plaza to save the Prospect Hill district.

Asked what the Peace Bridge Authority would do now that it seems there's no funding for the plaza, Rienas said: "We would have to have much greater consultation with the GSA and DHS to see what the next course of action would be."

But Rep. Brian Higgins, a Buffalo Democrat and key supporter of the plaza and bridge expansion, indicated he would not give up on the plaza project without a fight.

Within hours of being asked about the lack of funding, Higgins shot off a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.

"Given the primacy of the Peace Bridge expansion project to my community, and understanding the high priority of Northern Border security issues to your agency, I was very surprised and disheartened to read the misleading comments purportedly made by a representative of your department in a trade publication contradicting the importance of this project," he said.

Higgins also noted that he sits on the Homeland Security Committee, which oversees Napolitano's department and its Northern Border projects.

"I am anxious to address these challenges aggressively," Higgins said.

Meanwhile, Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., will fight to include funding for the Peace Bridge in an upcoming bill that will authorize federal transportation projects for the next several years, said the senator's spokesman, Matt House. Schumer also will push to create a line item for the Peace Bridge expansion project in the federal budget.

A critic of the plaza project said it's time for the Peace Bridge Authority to consider other options. James B. Kane, regional director for the Ambassador Niagara Signature Bridge Group, said the agency should consider his company's long-standing plan to build a separate bridge for commercial trucks at a 130-year-old rail crossing north of the Peace Bridge.

"The fact of the matter is, if they're not going to get the funding, they've got to move forward" and consider other options for easing the process of crossing the Canadian border at Buffalo, Kane said. "We can't keep dragging this on and on."

e-mail: jzremski@buffnews.com

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