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Cuomo, Canadian ambassador tout Peace Bridge deal

A long cross-border Peace Bridge dispute ended Wednesday as Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Gary Doer, the Canadian ambassador to the United States, agreed on a plan that the governor said would shave years off the timetable for improvements on the American side.

The breakthrough agreement also put leaders from both countries out in front of the border project in a cooperative manner after a great deal of public recrimination.

“The Peace Bridge works best when it works for Canada and when it works for Buffalo,” Cuomo said. “It either works for both, or it works for neither.”

Other than a traffic study, the agreement does not include any new project, but it does solidify projects already approved by the Peace Bridge Authority and calls for them to proceed simultaneously.

The agreement sets the Peace Bridge crossing on “a new and different path” through prioritized developments and about $140 million in accelerated projects, Cuomo said.

“We prefer partnership,” Doer said. “This is a road map, we think, that deals with a lot of the issues to allow for certainty.”

“We prefer partnership over litigation,” he added. “We prefer action over congestion, and I believe that’s the feelings of people in Western New York and in Southern Ontario.”

Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, who played a key role in bringing both sides together over the weekend, said he was thankful for Wednesday’s announcement.

Higgins said projects on the U.S. side would lead to more than 2,500 construction jobs over the next three years: a customs warehouse, plaza improvements and new road connections to and from the bridge.

“Finally, Western New Yorkers will see people working and progress happening at this pivotal border crossing,” Higgins said.

But another lawmaker found the maneuvering before Wednesday’s announcement to be dangerous and unnecessary.

Assemblyman Robin L. Schimminger, D-Kenmore, said he could not endorse the governor’s approach. He also faulted a bill passed last week in the State Legislature that explored dissolution of the binational authority, which has managed the bridge since the 1930s.

Cuomo said Canadian representatives, who maintained that Albany could not unilaterally dissolve the authority, were so concerned behind the scenes that they sought a delay of the legislation in the Capitol last week.

“The legislation really changed the conversation,” Cuomo said.

But Schimminger, one of several legislators from the area who voted against the bill, said he sees no major projects in the agreement that had not already been approved by the Peace Bridge Authority.

“A catastrophe has been averted, but it was a pending catastrophe that didn’t have to happen,” Schimminger said. “The roadblocks that were put on the Peace Bridge’s progress – largely by the U.S. appointees to the authority who absented themselves from meetings and later voted no on everything from approving minutes to progress – seem to now have been removed."

The promised progress on the U.S. plaza follows decades of frustration, the governor said.

“The Buffalo plaza has been dysfunctional for many decades,” Cuomo said. “You can ask anyone who has driven over the bridge and into the Buffalo plaza, especially on a Sunday night.” “It hasn’t worked well,” he said. “There’s traffic. There’s the delay. There’s noise. There’s pollution. It hasn’t worked for New York, and it hasn’t worked for Canada.”

The announcement of the deal was made at the Fontana Boathouse, near the bridge. Cuomo introduced Doer, U.S. Ambassador David Jacobson and Canadian Consul General John Prato.

He called them partners in a marathon negotiating process that began Saturday in Manhattan and culminated with Wednesday’s announcement.

Cuomo said the agreement allows the Peace Bridge Authority and New York State to immediately begin a planning process for the Buffalo plaza to ultimately prevent congestion and ease traffic flow.

Later in the day, during a meeting with editors and reporters of The Buffalo News, the governor said that without the agreement, the plaza planning process might have waited in line behind ongoing projects already approved by the Bridge Authority. He said that smoother bridge relations can be expected because both delegations to the authority now have marching orders from the top of their governments.

Cuomo said he adopted a hard-charging approach because the methods of the last 20 years proved unsuccessful. While some Canadians involved in the dispute claim a “sour taste” from their dealings with the state, Cuomo said his first responsibility lies with the Buffalo end of the international span.

“It hadn’t worked for 20 years,” he said. “My brainstorm was maybe we should try something new. That’s what I did.”

Kelly James, spokeswoman for Transport Canada in Ottawa, said the agreement preserves the Peace Bridge Authority, the 10-member commission made up of five Canadian and five U.S. citizens that governs the Peace Bridge.

“The road map for progress at the Peace Bridge represents a mutual understanding that trade, travel and good relationships benefit Americans and Canadians alike,” James said. “The government of Canada has consistently said that binational management works and respectful dialogue is the best tool for moving forward – and this understanding proves it.”

Assemblyman Sean M. Ryan, a Buffalo Democrat who sponsored the dissolution bill in that chamber, said the legislation can sit with the Legislature and not be sent to the governor until Dec. 31. If not sent by then, it dies.

“It’s still a useful leverage point until that time. We don’t anticipate any backsliding on this agreement, but it’s going to help keep the focus until at least that time,” he said. “Once we passed it, we knew the ambassadors would come into play here, and that’s exactly what happened,” he added.

Ryan said he still plans to push for changes at the authority, including more transparency, such as requiring officials to release personal income information to ensure no conflicts exist.

State Sen. Mark J. Grisanti, R-Buffalo, another sponsor of the bill, said the legislation provided a “huge amount of leverage” to make the improvements happen.

Wednesday’s deal calls for three projects to be undertaken simultaneously: a study of widening the U.S. plaza, pre-inspection of U.S.-bound cargo trucks in Fort Erie, Ont., and various U.S. plaza improvements. It also calls for an immediate traffic study of the Buffalo plaza “to evaluate the current traffic configuration.” The Buffalo plaza work will cost between $40 million and $50 million in authority funds, the agreement states. Another $15 million in improvements will be funded by New York State.

In addition, the agreement allows projects that already had been unanimously approved by the authority to continue. They include a $13 million plan to widen the Buffalo approach to the bridge to expedite traffic flow, upgrade the secondary U.S. Customs inspection facility on the Buffalo plaza and complete by December 2015 a new “gateway ramp” to direct traffic flow to the northbound Niagara Thruway.

The traffic study is to begin next month and be finished by April, with preliminary engineering work under way by May 2014.

The pre-inspection program, previously approved by Washington and Ottawa as a pilot effort, will “proceed immediately,” depending on any further reviews or approvals. The initial program is to last up to 18 months. The agreement says a permanent, pre-inspection facility in Fort Erie will cost about $30 million, “with funding to be determined.”

The Americans on the Bridge Authority board had demanded the termination of authority General Manager Ron Rienas, and the Canadian members vowed not to deal with Sam Hoyt, an American on the board who serves as its vice chairman. The governor said no personnel changes are expected.

“A better Buffalo plaza works for all,” Cuomo said. “This is a win-win situation. It’s a win for New York. It’s a win for Canada.” ...

Peace Bridge accord revives projects on American side

Agreement with Canada calls for upgrading U.S. plaza and buying nearby parcel

1. The authority will renovate and expand a customs building for an estimated $22.5 million to quicken the processing of trucks crossing into Buffalo.

2. A $13 million widening

project will provide more approach space for U.S.-bound vehicles entering the plaza, allowing better access to a NEXUS lane.

3. The state will buy the Episcopal Church Home property for $4.7 million to expand the plaza.

4. The state will purchase Busti Avenue to create a neighborhood buffer and for other potential uses. Baird Drive will be removed from Front Park.

5. A $22 million project will provide a new ramp connecting the plaza directly to the northbound I-190 and create a Porter Avenue entrance for traff

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