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Secret federal plan on Peace Bridge merited an extension of comment period

Delay was in order, even slight, when it came to the next step involving the Peace Bridge. Call it a tiny pause for the public comment period on an Environmental Impact Statement for new ramps to and from the Peace Bridge following a News report on Sunday that questioned whether the study fully complied with environmental laws.

But a spokesman for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said the deadline would not be pushed back. Cuomo administration officials have said Buffalo has waited too long for Peace Bridge improvements and they are absolutely right. But the circumstances uncovered by News Washington bureau chief Jerry Zremski warranted another short breather.

Zremski discovered that back in 2012, the feds considered implementing what one supervisor called a “possible win-win solution” at the Peace Bridge by redirecting truck traffic to the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge – and no one knew of this secret operation. It was created and killed in short order by the feds.

As a result of Zremski’s investigation involving several Freedom of Information requests, the story is out there. Now, environmentalists, neighborhood activists and quite probably state officials are up in arms. Who could blame them? Why on earth would officials, even though they may have meant well, initiate and then agree at some level to keep secret from just about everyone, a plan to address one of the most controversial environmental issues going around the Peace Bridge?

Environmentalists asked and even Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, a key supporter of the ramp project agreed, that the new deadline for comment should be moved to Feb. 28. The Buffalo Common Council last week passed a resolution requesting that the deadline be pushed back. It seemed fair given the new and shocking information about considered plans by the feds to move truck traffic away from the Peace Bridge as an environmental justice action in response to high rates of childhood asthma.

The effort to move all trucks to the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge started in a July 2012 meeting with West Side activists Kathleen R. Mecca and Elizabeth Martina and Peter C. Rizzo, a senior planner at the U.S. General Services Administration, the government’s property management agency. The GSA leases facilities from the Peace Bridge Authority for use by customs agents.

Rizzo considered the research, which Peace Bridge Authority General Manager Rob Rienas said is woefully out of date. Given the president’s push to get federal agencies to work together to address environmental justice issues, the feds thought they were onto something. But no one bothered involving the locals.

Ironically, Cuomo on Aug. 4, 2012, announced plans for an expanded customs house, in addition to the state’s acquisition of two blocks of Busti Avenue for use to expand the truck plaza.

The topic of truck traffic made its way up the ladder perhaps until it dawned on someone that they were actually working at cross-purposes with other levels of government while keeping regional interests in the dark.

There has already been a delay. On Jan. 9, the New York State Department of Transportation, in consultation with the Federal Highway Administration, agreed to extend the deadline for public comments on the draft Environmental Impact Statement an additional 15 days from Jan. 13 to Jan. 28.

The chances of actually moving truck traffic to the Lewiston-Queenston bridge were remote, given the multiple complications, and some opponents just don’t want anything to happen at the Peace Bridge. Still, this discovery warranted one more brief delay for public comment.