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Cuomo urges area lawmakers to support his stance on bridge

ALBANY – Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, whose tactical maneuvering in the Peace Bridge dispute has not been winning him any friends in Canada, held a closed-door meeting with Western New York lawmakers Monday to rally support for his stance in the controversy.

Officials involved in the 90-minute meeting said Cuomo was insistent that improvements and expansion to the Buffalo side of the span take precedence over Canadian priorities, such as redecking the aging bridge or adding a pre-inspection facility in Fort Erie designed to ease truck congestion coming into the United States.

The session came just hours after Canadian bridge officials took their case beyond area lawmakers, urging the downstate heads of two legislative panels not to advance legislation today designed to dissolve the Peace Bridge Authority, the binational agency that oversees the bridge.

Lawmakers in both the Senate and Assembly say that the measure proposed by two Buffalo legislators is expected to move out of two committees today and that the bill will pass both houses in the next three weeks before the 2013 session ends unless the Peace Bridge dispute is resolved. That, they say, will take a show of support by Canadian officials to move ahead quickly with improvements to the plaza on the Buffalo side.

Canadian officials, though, say the legislation by Sen. Mark Grisanti, R-Buffalo, and Assemblyman Sean Ryan, D-Buffalo, is not having the intended effect of pressuring an end to the stalemate but instead is driving the sides farther apart.

Cuomo’s newest appointee to the bridge authority said Western New York lawmakers expressed their unity for the governor’s push to expand the congested U.S. plaza. “I haven’t seen such strong support for any one issue by the delegation as I’ve seen today,’’ said former Buffalo Mayor Anthony Masiello, who is also a registered lobbyist in Albany.

Masiello, who was at the meeting with Cuomo, said lawmakers are expressing the perception or reality of Western New Yorkers who have seen various delays to Peace Bridge improvements over the years. Canadians have noted most of those delays have been generated on the U.S. side, whether by lawsuits, including by Masiello when he was mayor, or by environmental reviews.

Canadian officials wonder how they can work out a deal when Grisanti and Ryan have legislation they say points a legal bullet at the authority’s existence. The bill, lawmakers hope, will dissolve the bridge authority and its 10-member board – five Americans and five Canadians – which needs six votes to get anything done.

The legislation was being taken seriously enough by Canadian officials that Ron Rienas, the authority’s general manager, sent an eight-page letter to the heads of the two committees in Albany that have the Grisanti and Ryan bills on their agenda today. The separate letters were sent to Assemblyman James Brennan, D-Brooklyn, head of the Assembly Corporations, Authorities and Commissions Committee; and Sen. Jack Martins, R-Long Island, head of the Senate Local Government Committee.

Rienas warned the legislation poses “significant adverse consequences.’’ He said even if the legislation is successful, ending the authority’s existence would take an act of Congress in Washington and Parliament in Ottawa.

Passage of the state legislation would force the authority to pay off $50 million in outstanding bonds that are due to be remarketed next year. That, as a result, would force the cancellation of $50 million in U.S. plaza improvements, a $100 million bridge re-decking effort and the abandonment of a historic compact between the United States and Canada to allow armed U.S. Customs agents to pre-inspect truck traffic on the Fort Erie side of the bridge to help reduce congestion at the smaller Buffalo plaza.

While some officials involved in the dispute believe Cuomo is behind the Grisanti and Ryan legislation, the Cuomo administration has insisted its focus is on negotiating a settlement with Canadian officials to get stalled projects under way. The administration has repeatedly declined to say if it supports or opposes the bill.

Grisanti said he does not know whether Cuomo backs or opposes his bill, and he said while the legislation was a considerable part of the meeting Monday, Cuomo did not bring up the matter. “The governor said he knows it’s not all the Canadian side’s fault,’’ Grisanti said of the delays over the years. “But he said that’s in the past.’’

Grisanti said the point of the Monday meeting “was making sure everybody understands what the goal is here and that’s to make sure projects get done, whether on the American side or the Canadian side.’’

Lebel on Monday again declined an interview request and instead issued a written statement that depicted Canada’s position in the fight.

“The Peace Bridge supports the economies of both of our counties, and makes life better for Ontario and Western New York. The Peace Bridge Authority, with its binational board of directors, has worked well for decades,’’ he said.