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Cuomo hits bridge exit just in time

All that, for a traffic study. If nothing else – and, frankly, there wasn’t much else – we got a close look at what happens when Hurricane Andrew blows through town.

Thanks to the governor for the education.

The nine-month, Andrew Cuomo-precipitated war over the Peace Bridge ended Wednesday with a whimper. The governor declared victory and portrayed himself a hero upon the settlement of a crisis of his own making.

Ain’t politics grand?

The four-page agreement, which required the intervention of steady-handed ambassadors from both countries to craft, was touted by Cuomophiles as a landmark, gridlock-busting moment. Upon closer inspection, it looked like a go-ahead for the same projects the binational Peace Bridge Authority board had greenlighted months before Cuomo rode to the “rescue.”

Although a plaza traffic study happens sooner, none of the big pieces is moving forward any faster than they were before. Although they are too polite to crow about it, the Canadians swatted aside Cuomo’s attempt to take the reins on the Buffalo plaza redo. Any new, state-run environmental study, the “Understanding” underlined, will not “interfere with any other current or future PBA projects,” as the Canadians had feared. And, in case you were wondering, “the PBA will lead and manage this project.”

So much for dissolving the bridge authority.

For all of the talk of deadlines, a big one loomed for Cuomo: This morning’s monthly meeting of the Bridge Authority, where a $13 million U.S. plaza-approach widening is on the table. As long as the Cuomo-backed “dissolve the PBA” bill loomed in the State Legislature, it hindered the PBA’s ability to borrow money for that, or any other project. Unless the Canada-vs.-U.S. stalemate was settled by today’s meeting, Cuomo’s months-long machinations threatened to officially delay progress, not fast-track it.

“That would have been the consequence of it,” confirmed the authority’s Canadian chairman, Anthony Annunziata. “As long as that legislation was there, it prevented the authority from securing long-term financing, which would have delayed all of the projects.”

Cuomo needed to find an exit before that happened. Once your tactics start gumming up the works, you are perceived not as a change agent, but as an obstructionist. So the timing of this agreement was no coincidence. The clock was ticking. Two American sources close to the negotiations confirmed that Cuomo was in a bind.

“I think the governor was concerned that if nothing was in place before [today’s] meeting,” said an American insider, “that his strategy could begin to backfire.”

“There was the threat of a project delay,” said another American source. “That’s what moved this forward.”

As I wrote a few weeks ago, a likely settlement involved a firming-up of project deadlines, the death of the anti-PBA bill and a binational declaration of victory, along with each country “sacrificing” a PBA board member. Other than the “sacrifice,” which may still occur, that’s basically what happened.

Yes, there now are proposed target dates on various U.S. plaza-enhancing projects. Yes, there will be a speeded-up traffic study for eventual improvements to the cramped Buffalo plaza. But it looks to me like marginal gains for a lot of broken glass. Timetables were already understood. And study or no study, the plaza cannot be redone, as everyone concedes, until we find out if truck inspection can be moved to Fort Erie – and that’s likely two years away.

Some of the language in this four-page “Understanding” is so vague as to be meaningless. The document is pockmarked with the PBA assuring its “best efforts” to get projects done “as soon as possible.” At the risk of revealing domestic secrets, those are the same lines I use when my wife wants me to paint the spare bedroom.

As longtime Assemblyman Robin Schimminger, whose status renders him immune to Cuomo’s arm-twisting, put it, “This was a controversy that didn’t have to happen. Progress on planned improvements at both ends of the bridge, approved unanimously last year by the Public Bridge Authority but stalled by this dispute, can now resume.”


Having said that, I think Cuomo rates credit for jumping in and claiming a piece of a historically inert bridge project that other governors ran from. Whatever happens from here on, good or bad, Cuomo has “ownership.” The guy, to his credit, does not duck-and-cover.

To most folks, who are not captivated by details of plaza expansions, it may seem like Cuomo whipped those pesky Canadians into line. So be it. But declaring victory is different than actually achieving it. Cuomo contended that the cudgel of a dissolve-the-PBA bill pushed by his legislative pals cowed the Canadians. But he worked out a deal days before his tactics put bridge projects at risk, and – despite his demonizing of the PBA – the Bridge Authority remains in place. He kicked up plenty of dust, bruised feelings on both sides of the border and called in political chits – all for a relatively modest return.

I was not the only one puzzled by the timing of Cuomo’s frontal assault. Virtually everything codified by Wednesday’s agreement was already in the pipeline. Politically, he may feel that claiming progress on the long-stagnant Peace Bridge – in a region that preferred its favorite-son candidate to him in the last gubernatorial race – is the best way to win our hearts, minds and votes. Beyond that, I think he genuinely wants to get things done – for the good of New Yorkers and, not incidentally, to fuel his political ambitions. All of which is fine.

Whether you like his bare-knuckle style or not, he has, to my mind, broken more Albany gridlock in two-plus years than the previous three governors combined. Gay marriage, minimum wage, gun control, local property tax cap, on-time budgets and the “Buffalo Billion” – Cuomo has claimed impressive pelts. There are plenty of heavy lifts left on his agenda – from legalizing private casinos to solidifying abortion rights. It was time to declare victory on the Peace Bridge and move on. I think he hit the exit just in time.