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Peace Bridge fight close to being resolved

WASHINGTON – The bitter dispute over the future of the Peace Bridge may end today at a meeting in New York City among Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, the Canadian ambassador to the U.S. and his American counterpart.

Sources who asked not to be identified told The Buffalo News on Friday that Cuomo and the Canadians appear to be approaching an agreement that would let planned improvements on the American side of the bridge move forward while leaving the Peace Bridge Authority intact – meaning the governor would not sign a bill passed by the State Legislature to dissolve the authority.

Cuomo and the two ambassadors will try to finalize that deal at their meeting in New York.

A term sheet showing the projects included in the potential agreement, which a source read to The News, outlines at least $150 million – and perhaps as much as $180 million – in construction over the next few years.

The sheet shows that the deal, if finalized, would create 2,725 construction jobs at the bridge by 2016.

Included in the $150 million in projects are $55 million in short-term improvements to the American side of the bridge that the authority approved last fall.

But the deal also could include something that may lead to far more construction on the American side in future years: an environmental study that would look at moving some facilities that are currently on the plaza – such as the duty-free facility, perhaps – elsewhere on the plaza or to nearby land.

The meeting where the deal may be finalized comes only a week and a half after the Legislature passed a bill that could disband the Peace Bridge Authority, and only four days after Canadian Ambassador Gary Doer threatened legal action if Cuomo signed the bill.

But sources told The News that despite all the public acrimony, private talks between the Governor’s Office and John F. Prato, the Canadian consul general in New York, have been ongoing for weeks. All the while, sources said, Cuomo had been trying to use the legislation as a hammer to win a compromise.

What appears to be emerging as a result of it all is a deal where both sides can claim victory.

If a deal is struck, Cuomo can tout the fact that improvements on the American side – a new customs house, a widened approach to the bridge and a new connecting ramp – will move forward before the redecking of the full bridge, which Canadians said would have to come first if the Peace Bridge Authority were disbanded.

Moreover, the environmental impact study of future U.S. improvements will move forward at the same time as a pilot project whereby U.S.-bound cargo will be pre-inspected on the Canadian side of the bridge. The Canadians had objected to that study beginning while the pre-inspection project was under way. The thinking was that if pre-inspection is a success, there may be no need for further expansion on the American side.

Meanwhile, the Canadian government can claim, accurately, that it preserved the binational governing authority that has run the Peace Bridge since the 1930s – despite the threats wielded by the governor and state legislators. They can also argue, correctly, that the governor did not win his initial demand: control over the American plaza.

Cuomo’s allies on the Peace Bridge Authority had also demanded the resignation of Ron Rienas, the bridge’s general manager and a Canadian. Sources told The News that Rienas’ future remains in question.

Attending today’s meeting in New York will be Cuomo, Doer and David Jacobson, the U.S. ambassador to Canada.

Cuomo administration officials downplayed the significance of the gathering, saying it is “one in a series of meetings.” They would not confirm the outlines of the emerging deal.

Canadian sources, meanwhile, confirmed that the meeting would take place.

If Cuomo and his Canadian counterpart strike an agreement, it’s likely to resemble what’s outlined in the term sheet, which shows the following projects:

• A new $23 million customs house on the American side, with construction to begin this fall and to be completed by the summer of 2015, creating 556 construction jobs.

• A $10 million widening of the approach to the Peace Bridge on the American side, with work also starting in the fall and set to be finished the summer after next, creating 278 construction jobs

• A $22 million connecting ramp on the American side, a state-funded project that would begin next spring and be done in the fall of 2015, creating 612 construction jobs.

• The redecking of the entire bridge, which would start in 2015 and end a year later. Some $2.5 million in engineering and design work is already under way on that project, and construction would cost $92 million and result in 1,279 construction jobs.

• Some $500,000 in improvements to prepare for the pre-inspection pilot project to go forward on the Canadian side – and another $25 million to $30 million in construction in Canada if the pilot project works and cargo inspection is shifted permanently to Fort Erie.

Even if Cuomo and the ambassadors strike a deal in New York, some of the most significant improvements on the American side of the bridge may be left to be decided another day.

The environmental impact statement will examine several potential projects, a source close to the negotiations said. First and foremost, it will look at what the American plaza may look like if the pre-inspection project succeeds – or if it fails.

News political reporter Robert J. McCarthy contributed to this report. email: