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Doubts grow about ending Peace Bridge Authority

ALBANY – The region’s top business group, a former Cuomo administration appointee to the Peace Bridge Authority and Sen. Charles E. Schumer are all raising questions about legislation in Albany that sponsors hope will dissolve the 80-year-old binational authority that operates the bridge.

The concerns come as sources said top officials from several Canadian federal agencies, including the Foreign Affairs Office and Transport Canada, met Monday in Ottawa to discuss the worsening dispute between New York State and Canada over improvements to the bridge.

Kelly James, a spokeswoman for Transport Canada, did not comment on any federal meetings Monday in Ottawa but issued Canada’s clearest to-date criticism of the bridge-dissolution legislation.

“Canada’s position is clear that the State of New York cannot unilaterally change the governance of structure of the Peace Bridge Authority,” she said Monday night.

Lawmakers in Albany say the controversial legislation, which Canadian officials have already said will lead to lengthy lawsuits if approved, could be passed as early as this week in both the Assembly and the State Senate.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has declined to take a formal position on the bill, but last week, lawmakers said, he privately told legislators to keep pushing the bill because it is putting pressure on Canada to bow to his plan for improvements at the Buffalo end of the span.

But others, including Democratic allies of Cuomo, say the legislation is having the reverse effect on Canadians, and could halt construction on all major projects planned for the bridge.

Schumer has called for “both sides to come together to start talking and forge a friendly and peaceful way to get things done.” Several days ago, the New York Democrat said, “I do think that legislation which says abandon the Peace Bridge Authority and start all over could only down the progress we’ve made.”

He joins Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, in raising red flags over the bill moving through the State Capitol and authored by State Sen. Mark J. Grisanti, R-Buffalo, and Assemblyman Sean M. Ryan, D-Buffalo.

Schumer was instrumental in getting the U.S. and Canadian governments to locate a pilot program in Fort Erie, Ont., to have American customs agents precheck truck traffic in Canada as a way to reduce congestion on the bridge. The project is due to start in about six months.

Schumer said the project will help with commerce and create jobs in Western New York. “But the only way we’re going to get these benefits from preinspection on the Canadian side,” he said, “is cooperation between Canada and New York State.”

Meanwhile, Patrick J. Whalen, a former Cuomo appointee to the Bridge Authority who quit when the dispute began in order to devote more time to his job as chief operating officer at the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, broke his silence Monday about the bridge dispute. “I have a really big concern that the legislation jeopardizes the pilot project,” Whalen said of the truck-inspection program.

“There is nothing more important to the operation of the Buffalo plaza than moving commercial primary inspection to Fort Erie, and that starts with the pilot preclearance” program, he said. “No matter who ultimately operates the Peace Bridge and its plazas, the Buffalo plaza will not function efficiently if the primary commercial inspection is in Buffalo, because there’s not enough room.”

Whalen said that even with the improvements eyed for the Buffalo side of the Niagara River, including a larger inspection area, there still won’t be room to handle all the truck traffic without the primary inspection for U.S.-bound commercial vehicles being done in Canada.

The Buffalo Niagara Partnership, the area’s chief business lobbying group, is telling all members of the Western New York delegation that it is not taking a position on the Grisanti-Ryan bill.

The group said that it is supportive of Cuomo’s efforts for an expedited U.S. plaza expansion but that it is “firmly” in support of ensuring the preinspection program for Fort Erie is kept alive. “Rest assured, preinspection is the Partnership’s top priority relative to the Peace Bridge and binational commerce,” the group said to lawmakers.

The group said that varying “legal interpretations” over the Grisanti-Ryan bill have prevented it from taking a stance on the legislation. It said the bill, though, raises a number of questions, including whether the Canadians will still move ahead with the pilot program if the legislation passes; who would handle various bridge work if the authority is dissolved; and what happens to $50 million in projects in the pipeline if the bill passes.

“The Partnership wants what everyone wants, which is an accelerated Peace Bridge plaza and to get the job done. Regarding what’s the right path, we don’t have an opinion, except to say the area of concern that we have is preserving preclearance,” Dottie Gallagher-Cohen, the group’s president, said in an interview Monday.

Senate Republican Conference Leader Dean G. Skelos, of Long Island, said he expects his house to pass the bill. Asked about complaints that Canadians have raised about the bill, Skelos said, “I think there certainly has been a lack of attention to the American side, and I’m looking to see if I have a musket anywhere that we can all go up to the Peace Bridge and make our demands known.”

The bill’s sponsors have said that the authority’s usefulness has run out and that there was never a vision that the bridge always be run by a binational board. They say its structure – five Canadians and five Americans – has led to gridlock on advancing improvements on the Buffalo side. Further, they say the bill gives the authority another year of life – time to get its house in order to proceed with building plans.

Ryan was unsure whether the bill would pass this week or next, which is the end of the 2013 session. “We’re trying to give the parties as much time as possible to control the matter by themselves,” he said. “If they can’t, then we’ll have legislative imposition.”

But Assemblyman Robin L. Schimminger, D-Kenmore, has been trying to persuade lawmakers to oppose the bill, saying it would raise financial issues that would halt new construction efforts, including the U.S. plaza, preclearance project and redecking work. “This legislation … will see the Peace Bridge Authority on a pathway to further lawsuits, international disputes and possible retribution from Ottawa,” he said. “It’s not a pretty picture.”