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Cuomo was the real bridge problem

The storm clouds have passed, for the moment. But distrust remains. And plenty of folks, in the wake of Andrew Cuomo's bare-knuckled entry into the Peace Bridge fray, believe that the governor didn't so much ensure progress as threaten it. The governor, figuratively speaking, aimed his gun. The rest of us may have dodged a bullet.

On the heels of Wednesday's binational “understanding,” previously warring U.S. and Canadian members made nice at Friday's Peace Bridge Authority board meeting. They OK'd early funding for the $13 million widening of the U.S. bridge landing – the first project that, had not an agreement been reached, would likely have been delayed by the governor's machinations. The rosy glow faded with news that the bill to dissolve the bridge authority, sponsored by Cuomo's legislative allies, was not officially dead but merely shelved – available as a potential hammer until its year-end expiration.

Aside from ticking off the Canadians, the undead bill keeps alive the binational distrust elevated in recent months by Cuomo's tactics. Tensions had risen to the point where the respective ambassadors of both countries, David Jacobson and Canada's Gary Doer, were forced last weekend to intervene before things spiraled out of control. “Without a resolution,” said an American official familiar with the talks, “at that meeting Friday, anything could have happened.”

There was plenty of progress from the past 18 months to preserve. Major projects on Buffalo's plaza – a widening of the bridge landing, a re-do of the U.S. Customs building, a traffic-clearing access ramp – had been green-lighted by the bridge authority. Also in place was a bridge redecking and the biggest congestion-relief piece: A test project to move inspections of U.S.-bound trucks from the cramped U.S. plaza to Fort Erie.

Numerous officials on both sides of the border felt that Cuomo's gamesmanship threatened to undo or delay those giant steps. The Cuomo-backed bill did not just hinder the authority's ability to get loans for some projects, it angered the Canadians on the binational board. That ensured a progress-halting 5-5 voting stalemate, as the governor essentially controls the five U.S. members.

The “Cuomo issue” did not end there.

Another huge concern was the governor's insistence on fast-tracking an environmental study for a potentially expanded U.S. plaza, including adjacent Busti Avenue and the Episcopal Church Home. Sources said Cuomo refused to accept the likelihood that any new environmental impact study would likely trigger lawsuits that could delay for years – if not sabotage – already-approved bridge projects.

Cuomo felt he could blow through any environmental review, as he did with the recent Tappan Zee Bridge project. I think he was being either oblivious or naive. Any expansion of the existing plaza would almost certainly provoke a lawsuit, when asthma rates in the surrounding neighborhood are nearly quadruple the national average. And previous environmental impact statement-related issues contributed to the infamous 11 years of project delays.

Multiple sources told me that Jacobson, the American ambassador, finally, last weekend, convinced the headstrong Cuomo to back off.

“There was a legitimate concern by the Canadians of anything” that would trigger a new environmental impact study, said the American official. “It was all about the governor and others being brought up to speed last weekend.”

Cuomo settled instead for an accelerated “traffic study” that does not threaten existing projects and gives him the political cover of fast-tracking “progress.” In reality, said another American insider, “the Canadians did not bend on anything,” adding that the bridge authority stayed in place, and there is no new environmental impact study until the projects already planned and approved are done.

All of which prevents what Canadians and others feared: the potential for project delays, caused by Cuomo's headlong push. Rather than the Canadians standing in the way of progress, as Cuomo's people claimed, it seems to me they were protecting it.

Granted, speed bumps popped up last fall, traceable partly to personality conflicts among bridge officials. But the governor's two-fisted entry turned a molehill into a mountain.

Every big-piece project certified in Wednesday's “Understanding” was already in place before Cuomo jumped in. The agreement left a lot of bridge-savvy folks not clapping their hands in gratitude, but breathing a sigh of relief.