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Peace isn’t evident on bridge authority board

FORT ERIE, Ont. – The “peace” surrounding the Peace Bridge Authority appears fragile this weekend.

Despite an amicable meeting Friday between New York and Canadian members of the authority board, sources close to the situation say doubt and suspicion still linger among the Canadians.

Just days after Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo reached an “understanding” with the Canadians here and in Ottawa on how to chart future development around the international span, the Canadians remain anxious because the governor has not vetoed legislation passed in the State Legislature last week that aims to dissolve the authority.

Some Canadians fear the threat posed by that bill could reopen the most serious rift between New York and Canada in the 86-year history of the bridge.

“Because it has not been vetoed and sits in a drawer, it has the potential to be disruptive,” said one source close to the situation. “The governor got what he wants. Why has he not vetoed?”

A spokesman for the Cuomo administration said, “As Governor Cuomo has said, a bridge only works when it works at both ends. An agreement was made and the legislation will be dealt with per this agreement.”

Canadian fears now surround the financing plan for major bridge projects that unanimously received approval Friday, according to several sources.

Another test of the fragile peace now guiding the authority will occur four to six months from now when the board must approve additional steps aimed at bonding about $50 million worth of projects, the sources said.

The board Friday authorized without one dissenting vote about $1.5 million for the first phase of an eventual $13 million project to widen the bridge’s Buffalo approach to ease traffic flow.

The Cuomo administration has suggested that the authority could dip into its $95 million reserve fund to finance some of the projects, but the Canadians have said bonding eventually will be necessary because the redecking of the bridge alone will cost $100 million.

The bonding also perpetuates the authority’s existence.

The sources close to the situation said questions and doubt linger over the bill sponsored by State Sen. Mark J. Grisanti, R-Buffalo, and Assemblyman Sean M. Ryan, D-Buffalo. It does not expire until Dec. 31 unless vetoed by Cuomo. Ryan and Grisanti say they will seek additional “reforms” to Peace Bridge Authority operations even if their legislation is never signed into law.

Technically, Cuomo cannot veto the bill because the legislature has not sent it to him to act upon. But the governor could request it be sent so he could sign or veto.

Both legislators earlier this week referred to the “leverage” the still living bill provides for the next six months.

“It’s still a useful leverage point until that time,” Ryan said this week, referring to its Dec. 31 expiration date. “We don’t anticipate any backsliding on this agreement, but it’s going to help keep the focus until at least that time.”

In addition, the resolution of the dispute reached earlier this week was labeled an “understanding” and not an “agreement,” and it contains no signatures, according to the sources.

“It’s basically a handshake as a sign of good faith,” one source said.

The legislation is an “unnecessary threat when we’re trying to achieve cooperation and understanding,” the source said, adding such uncertainty could cause the understanding to eventually “blow up.”

If the project financing falters when it comes before the board again in the fall, a court case could be brought by Ottawa, the source added.

Cuomo said Wednesday he would follow procedures that would make the legislation “null and void.” While his administration declined in the past to take a stand on the authority dissolution bill, he said Wednesday it “brought energy and attention to the issue.” He called it a “very impactful” bill that “was right from a philosophical point of view.”

Cuomo did not say, however, that he planned to veto the bill as a sign of good faith.

“There is no need for a sign of good faith,” he said. “We signed the agreement.”

Nevertheless, the Peace Bridge Authority meeting Friday marked the first in over six months that proceeded in a friendly atmosphere before the plaza dispute erupted and essentially froze all authority business.

“I am hopeful and optimistic that we will truly move forward,” said Sam Hoyt, vice chairman of the authority and Cuomo’s chief representative. “We will work together ... to make sure any differences of opinion can be resolved quickly and amicably.”

And Anthony M. Annunziata, a Canadian who is the authority’s chairman, sounded equally optimistic.

“The state and Canada are now able to see commonality,” he said. “Alignment with the authority is now there.”

Annunziata even saw some good in Cuomo’s hard-charging approach, pointing to the “political will” now guiding Peace Bridge affairs and indicating “we have a champion in New York State.”

“I’m glad he’s on my team and that I’m not playing against him,” he said.