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Both parties in Peace Bridge dispute should lower the volume

Now what? The State Legislature on Wednesday easily approved legislation that could end the corporate structure of the Peace Bridge Authority. It’s a move that could put the authority out of business, but which seems designed, instead, to produce a new way of doing business by the authority.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who has quietly supported – if not instigated – the bill that passed both the Senate and Assembly, wants to see greater progress on the American side of the bridge. It’s the right goal.

Western New York’s economy relies to a significant extent on Canadians who cross the Peace Bridge to shop, eat and attend events. But traffic backups coming into Buffalo are a severe disincentive and are at least part of the cause of decreased vehicle traffic over the past several years. In fact, traffic is down enough that the authority’s general manager, Ron Rienas, said a new bridge may not be built.

Backups also increase pollution from idling trucks and contribute to elevated levels of diseases such as asthma among residents of the neighborhood. There is every reason to want to hasten the expansion of the U.S. customs plaza.

There are complications. Planning for an expansion has to factor in the possibility of moving truck pre-inspections to the Fort Erie side of the bridge, and the success of that pilot project won’t be known for at least two years – assuming it ever gets under way. Rienas says the legislation heading to Cuomo threatens it.

The move by the state has caused bad blood, but Cuomo insists that it can’t hinder progress because there hasn’t been any. That may be a little bit of an inside pitch – the expansion of the Canadian plaza benefited New York by consolidating toll collection there – but it’s well inside the strike zone.

With passage of this legislation, Cuomo has new cards to play in an effort to speed up the never-beginning process of improving the plaza and, if that increases traffic across the river, perhaps a new bridge, as well. At a minimum, it should focus attention on the problems at hand.

We hope and presume that Cuomo won’t be in a hurry to sign or veto this measure. This is the point at which serious discussions must occur. Rienas says he doesn’t know why New York is pursuing this strategy, since $50 million of improvements could begin next month on the U.S. plaza – improvements he says are also at risk because of the New York legislation. If that is the case, this would be a good moment for Cuomo and his allies to make their needs eminently clear. So should Canadian members of the authority, as well as government officials in Canada.

How big an issue is the pre-inspection plan? What else can be done to speed up progress in New York? How fast can it realistically go? Is there value in abolishing the authority and adopting a different model of governance?

The back and forth between American and Canadian interests on this matter has amounted to little more than a screech of white noise: a stream of static that conceals both the facts and the bottom line issues for each side. It’s time to turn down the volume and improve the clarity.

New York’s strategy in this matter is not without risks. Recall the infamous red budget-green budget debacle in Erie County nine years ago. The assumption among many was that the strategy employed by then-County Executive Joel Giambra would sort itself out as cooler heads prevailed. They didn’t and the ensuing mess created a financial crisis and helped write the end of Giambra’s career as an office holder.

That crisis shouldn’t be allowed to happen here. American and Canadian interests need to focus on the core issues required by each side and move to meet them. The stakes are high, but it should be possible for both sides to win.