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Assembly, State Senate vote overwhelmingly to dissolve Peace Bridge Authority

The State Legislature on Wednesday afternoon passed a controversial bill to dissolve the Peace Bridge Authority, an issue that has become a thorny topic for New York-Canada relations.

The measure sets the wheels in motion to end the corporate status of the binational, 10-member panel created by state and federal laws to run the span between Fort Erie, Ont., and Buffalo.

The bill passed, 92-49, after a contentious session in the Assembly.

With little discussion, the vote in the Senate was 61-0.

The Legislature acted less than 24 hours after Canadians dispatched a senior federal official to Albany in an attempt to slow the state’s efforts to end the Peace Bridge Authority,

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has not publicly embraced the legislation but has backed it in private meetings with lawmakers as a way to pressure Canadians to resolve the continuing dispute over improvements to the U.S. side of the Peace Bridge.

The bill set up a nasty, and unusual, floor debate in the Assembly lasting more than an hour and pitting several Western New York Democrats against one another.

“The governor’s hands are very much around this legislation. His appointees support it. They want to see it move through this Legislature as a bludgeon, as a club, against our Canadian friends on the Peace Bridge Authority. … I don’t like bullying,” said Assemblyman Robin L. Schimminger, D-Kenmore.

He said the bill will halt improvements on the span because the threat of dissolution will force the authority to sell off bonds, meaning that it will not be able to further finance new construction. He called the legislation “mischievous and, at worst, reckless and dangerous.”

Assemblywoman Jane L. Corwin, R-Clarence, said that the authority already has approved a number of major construction efforts and that delays now will cause new environmental-review processes that will push renovations and expansion years into the future. “The governor is telling us we have to do it this way because we have to move forward,” Corwin said. Instead, she said, the legislation will cause lawsuits halting bridge improvements, adding it is not helping negotiations or relations between New York and Canada.

But Assemblyman Sean M. Ryan, D-Buffalo, who sponsored the bill, said Canadian members of the authority do not want to do major expansion work on the Buffalo side for five or more years – delays he said will further add to pollution due to idling trucks on the city’s West Side.

“The children of the West Side of Buffalo who are living in these conditions can’t have four or five more years of that,” Ryan said.

Ryan said the Peace Bridge Authority is just like any sewer or water authority. “Authorities are not answerable to the public and they are not transparent,” he said, blaming the binational board for 15 years of delays to improvements on the U.S. side. He called “baseless” the concerns raised by Schimminger about construction delays or scuttling of the pilot project for preclearance of U.S.-bound trucks in Fort Erie.

Assemblyman Michael P. Kearns, D-Buffalo, called the legislation an example of “sledgehammer diplomacy” that is an attack on the state’s largest trading partner.

No similar division occurred during Senate debate, which was led by Sen. Mark J. Grisanti, R-Buffalo. “The problem is the plaza needs to be done how Western New York and New York State see fit,” said Grisanti, sponsor of the bill. He said the authority has until July 2014 to resolve matters and issue new debt or it goes out of existence. “The dissolution is not up to this legislation. The dissolution is up to the authority,” Grisanti said.

In response to the vote, authority General Manager Ron Rienas, a Canadian, said Wednesday that the legislation will immediately halt $150 million in Peace Bridge projects already approved. He emphasized that the board last year unanimously approved constructing a new customs warehouse on the Buffalo plaza and widening approaches to both ends of the bridge.

But those projects are now likely to be put on hold, he said, because lenders for such capital expenditures are uncertain of the authority’s future. As a result, Rienas said he believes that the authority now must delay other scheduled projects and save its own money for its top priority – an approximately $92 million project to replace the span’s original 1927 decking in 2015.

“Those projects simply won’t happen,” he said, pointing to the need to avoid delays such as the 52 days of lane closures experienced in 2012 because of problems from the deteriorating deck.

He said Canadians share Cuomo’s “frustration” over a lack of progress on the Buffalo plaza, but he disputed assertions by state officials that adopting the schedule would delay work on the U.S. side by eight years. He also said passage of the legislation only causes more delay.

“That work is ready to start, and now it comes to a grinding halt?” he said. “It doesn’t make sense. I think he wants to do the right thing,” he added, referring to the governor. “I think he’s getting terrible advice.”

Rienas also said Albany’s move to dissolve the authority will have no practical effect because under Canadian law it cannot go out of existence until at least 2020. In addition, Rienas said, Cuomo’s accelerated timetable for the Buffalo plaza cannot proceed because it will take several years to determine the success or failure of a pilot project on pre-clearing trucks for inspection in Fort Erie. He contends that the authority should proceed with its schedule in the meantime and then tackle Buffalo plaza projects that Canadian members also support in principle.

Nevertheless, he predicted the new legislation will prompt a legal response from Ottawa. “They have made it very clear,” he said. “If this legislation passes and the governor signs it, they will go to court.”

Tuesday, Canadian Consul General John F. Prato met with Cuomo administration officials and legislators in Albany to try to ease the growing tensions over the bridge dispute. His bid to slow the advance of the legislation was “not successful,” a Cuomo administration official said Tuesday night. Wednesday afternoon, as the bill was being debated in the Assembly, Transport Canada, the lead federal agency in Ottawa, responded to Buffalo News questions about Prato’s visit.

“Canada is committed to the effective functioning of the Peace Bridge Authority. Discussions between Canada and the U.S. take place as required in support of this goal,” said Kelly James, a Transport Canada spokeswoman.

Among those raising concerns about the bill’s impact have been the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, and Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., who pushed to get Washington and Ottawa to agree to place the truck preclearance facility in Fort Erie. He recently warned the legislation could jeopardize that program that took years to negotiate between Canada and the United States.

When asked about those concerns Wednesday while at the University at Buffalo Law School, Cuomo did not respond directly. But he did sound a familiar refrain that defended his hard-charging approach as stemming from two decades of stagnation at the Peace Bridge.

“Could you now slow the progress? No, because you’re not making any progress,” he said. “So there’s nothing to slow. My point is the exact opposite – let’s do something.”

Still, he said he hopes that the two sides settle their differences “amicably.”

“But Buffalo and the American side has a real trajectory of progress,” he said. “That’s what this is all about.”

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