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Peace Bridge battle stirs Canadian threat to fight in court

WASHINGTON – The Canadian ambassador to the United States said Tuesday that New York legislation to disband the Peace Bridge Authority would delay improvements at the span by prompting a court battle that Canada doesn’t want – but that it’s willing to fight and ready to win.

Asked if Canada was prepared to go to U.S. federal court if New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signs the bill that the State Legislature passed last week, Ambassador Gary A. Doer said: “Canada will protect its sovereignty. And having said that, we prefer a cooperative approach.”

Doer insisted that New York State cannot unilaterally tear up the agreement with Canada that created the Peace Bridge Authority, adding: “We believe that if the bill is signed, it’s going to be a good day for lawyers and not a good day for Buffalo business. We would rather hire hard hats than lawyers.”

Doer’s warning about a legal fight ahead highlighted an interview with The Buffalo News in which he offered the most extensive – and critical – comments yet from the Canadian government on the Peace Bridge controversy.

In the interview, Doer also reiterated Canada’s support for an experimental plan in which U.S.-bound truck cargo will be pre-inspected on the Fort Erie side of the Peace Bridge. He indicated that the plan was proof of Canada’s good intentions to improve the traffic flow on both sides of the border.

“We agreed to the pre-inspection program to decrease congestion. We agreed to that without being threatened,” Doer said.

With Cuomo’s appointees to the Peace Bridge Authority demanding the removal of the bridge’s Canadian general manager, and the Legislature passing a bill that aims to end the authority in about a year, Doer responded to a long-standing News interview request with a blunt and confident message.

“Threatening is not going to work, because we do not feel threatened,” he said.

Doer said Canada is gravely concerned, though, that the legislation in Albany would prompt a long legal battle that would be bad for everyone involved.

“The bottom line is, both countries and both provinces and states have the ability to get something done, or they have the ability to gum it up,” Doer said. “We think this [legislation] is going to gum it up.”

The Peace Bridge Authority approved $50 million in improvements to the American plaza last October, but the authority’s Canadian chairman has warned that those improvements could be stalled because of the Albany legislation.

Doer reiterated that point, again and again, in the interview.

“Since the Assembly passed the bill last week, everybody is lawyering up – including in Canada – rather than building across, which is what we want to do,” he said. “We believe that lawyering-up is a recipe for slowing it down.”

Shown a transcript of Doer’s comments, the Cuomo administration responded with a two-sentence statement from former Buffalo Mayor Anthony M. Masiello, a recent Cuomo appointee to the Peace Bridge Authority.

“We know from our past that lawsuits delay action and create hard feelings,” Masiello said. “We agree with our Canadian friends that we need to ride above the rift and expedite the plaza for positive progress for both sides of border.”

Doer said he did not want to speculate on how long any legal action might delay improvements at the Peace Bridge, but he also noted that the biggest recent delay in work there stemmed from an environmental-impact statement that was in the works in New York State for the better part of a decade before being abandoned last year.

“This tennis ball bounced in the court of the U.S. side on the plaza from 1995 to 2012,” he said.

And while Canada – or the Canadian members of the authority board – would be the most likely entities to go to court to challenge the New York law, Doer insisted it was New York, not Canada, that was forcing the issue. “We’re not initiating this,” he said of the bill passed in Albany last week. “This is not our law. We do not see this as a sensible way to go. We see this as a recipe for increased congestion.”

Noting that Cuomo had received a memo from lawyers regarding the legality of the Peace Bridge legislation, which was cited in an article in The News on Sunday, Doer said: “He’s talking about lawyers already. He talked about lawyers this weekend. We’re responding in kind.”

The memo Doer referred to argues that the legislation dissolving the Peace Bridge is legal because a set of 1970 amendments to the Peace Bridge Charter was never approved by Congress. In the view of Cuomo’s legal advisers, that means an earlier version of the Peace Bridge Charter – which would have led to the authority’s dissolution in the 1990s – is still legally binding.

Asked what he thought of New York’s legal argument, Doer indicated there’s a larger issue that would come into play in any court battle.

“You don’t need a lawyer to understand that the bridge crosses an international border,” he said.

Doer said Canada’s legal view is that then-New York Attorney General Jacob K. Javits was correct when he said in 1955 that both the U.S. and Canadian governments would have to sign off on any substantive changes in how the Peace Bridge is governed.

He also took issue with the contention, voiced by some in Albany, that the Canadians have not paid proper attention to the American side of the Peace Bridge.

“We actually wanted to have pre-inspection” at the Peace Bridge rather than other border crossings, Doer said. “We chose this site because we wanted to find ways to improve congestion on both sides of the border.”

While some have speculated that the spat over the Peace Bridge’s future could derail the pre-inspection plan, Doer said that’s just not so.

“This flows from an agreement between the president and the prime minister,” he said. “That’s not in danger. We will proceed with the pre-inspection exercise.”

That came as good news to Assemblyman Sean M. Ryan, D-Buffalo, one of the chief sponsors of the legislation to dissolve the Peace Bridge Authority.

Doer’s acknowledgement that pre-inspection will move forward “reduces some of the fear-based decision-making” on the issue, Ryan said.

Otherwise, though, Ryan implicitly criticized much of what Doer had to say. “Everyone keeps saying the law’s on their side,” Ryan said, but the Canadians “seem deeply concerned about the impact of this law. It’s like: ‘We don’t feel threatened, but, holy cow, we’re going to court.’ There’s a bit of a forked tongue here, but it doesn’t get us any closer to a conclusion.”

Doer, however, insisted that the debate about the Peace Bridge Authority – and New York’s attempt to dissolve it – must be grounded in a simple truth.

“You don’t need a lawyer to realize this is a bridge across two countries, not a diving board,” the ambassador said. “If it was a diving board, the New York State Legislature would have complete authority. But it’s not.”