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Canada raises stakes in dispute over Peace Bridge

WASHINGTON – Raising the dispute over the Peace Bridge to its highest level yet, the Canadian government is taking a strong stand against pending New York legislation that could result in the dissolution of the Peace Bridge Authority, saying the measure threatens to stall $50 million in improvements to the bridge’s American plaza that the authority agreed to last year.

“At this time, there is a climate of doubt that puts progress on planned capital projects at risk, due to the tabling of bills in the New York Assembly and Senate, both of which aim to amend the incorporating legislation of the PBA,” Scott Streiner, assistant deputy minister of Transport Canada, said in a May 31 letter to Howard B. Glaser, a top aide to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

“These deliberations on governance only serve as a distraction, and compromise the ability to move ahead on the approved capital projects,” Streiner said in the letter, which The Buffalo News obtained from a source who asked not to be identified. “This is unfortunate,” Streiner said.

While Canadian members of the Peace Bridge Authority have been publicly objecting to the state legislation for weeks, Streiner’s letter represents the first time since the dispute began that a Canadian government official has publicly spelled out an argument for keeping the Peace Bridge Authority intact.

Streiner noted that the Peace Bridge Authority’s board unanimously approved a capital plan for those $50 million in projects last October. Those American-side projects include widening the approach to the bridge inspection booths, a new ramp to move traffic off the plaza more efficiently and a new customs house.

“Canadian directors have strongly supported projects on both sides of the border, and have done so repeatedly,” Streiner wrote.

While Streiner said in the letter that those projects are in jeopardy because of the pending legislation in Albany, that legislation’s chief Assembly sponsor, Assemblyman Sean Ryan, said he sees no reason why that work can’t continue no matter what the State Legislature does.

Critics of the legislation have argued that dissolving the authority would threaten those projects because it would dissolve the entity that would issue bonds to pay for that work, but Ryan disagreed.

“Those projects are to be paid out of the $96 million the Peace Bridge Authority has on hand,” Ryan said. “No borrowing is necessary for those projects.”

Ryan also echoed criticism that Glaser, director of state operations and senior policy adviser to Cuomo, detailed in an April 25 letter to Canadian Transport Minister Denis Lebel.

“Finally, after years of foot-dragging, progress is occurring on the American side of the border,” Glaser wrote. “Unfortunately, that progress is in jeopardy due to a lack of cooperation from Canadian members of the PBA board.”

The exchange of letters between Streiner and Glaser is just the latest chapter in the binational battle over the future of the span that links Buffalo with Fort Erie, Ont.

While the Peace Bridge Authority’s Canadian members have been outspoken in defending their actions, Streiner’s letter is the clearest statement yet of the Canadian government’s concern over the pending state legislation, which passed through Senate and Assembly committees last week with what lawmakers called the quiet support of the governor.

In the letter, Streiner mentioned what could be a huge roadblock to that legislation.

“Canada’s view is that significant amendments to the governance of the PBA cannot be made without the consent of both federal governments,” he wrote.

Ryan disagreed, arguing that because the state struck the deal that originally created the Peace Bridge Authority, it can also act to shutter the authority.

“There’s no federal approval needed to maintain a state authority,” Ryan said.

In addition, though, Streiner indicated that Canada will not sign off on the idea behind Ryan’s legislation, which is to let New York State rather than a binational authority control operations on the bridge’s American plaza unless significant progress is made there by July 15, 2014.

“The decades of successful functioning of the PBA under the existing governance structure are proof that it works,” Streiner wrote. “Canada is committed to the PBA and the existing governance structure, and understands that your administration also wants to make the current structure work.”

The Cuomo administration offered no comment on Streiner’s letter.

Glaser, however, made the Cuomo administration’s point of view clear in his letter to Transport Canada, saying that U.S. members of the Peace Bridge Authority board had lost confidence in the authority’s general manager, Ron Rienas, a Canadian.

“With this matter unresolved, there is serious doubt about the ability of the Peace Bridge Authority to function,” Glaser wrote.

But in his letter, Streiner – who is several levels lower in the Canadian bureaucracy than Lebel, the official Glaser wrote to – urged the Cuomo administration to change its tone in hopes of resolving the dispute.

“We trust you and your colleagues will agree that engaging in respectful, fact-based dialogue is the best way to ensure the smooth functioning of an institution and an asset that have served our two countries so well for almost a century,” Streiner told Glaser.