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Tensions linger a year after Peace Bridge pact

New York and Canadian members of the Peace Bridge Authority earlier this month booked a secluded getaway for a “governance retreat,” and hopes soared that a long period of tension on the board might finally fade away.

A year had passed since top officials from Albany and Ottawa signed a “memorandum of agreement,” aiming to heal a rift in New York-Canada relations over what Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo called the slow pace of development on the Buffalo side of the Peace Bridge.

But the attempt this month to arrange a retreat aimed at consensus building resulted only in disagreement. The board’s 10 Canadian and American representatives could not settle on an agenda, its costs or its date.

Now the session remains in limbo, as does the tenuous peace guiding the authority since Cuomo and Canadian Ambassador Gary Doer signed their pact in Buffalo a year ago last week.

Projects approved long before last year’s dispute – like widening the Buffalo approach to the bridge and building new ramps to the Niagara Thruway – are underway or about to begin, and plans for implementing Cuomo’s vision for new development on the Buffalo plaza continue.

But the two sides warily eye each other, even as recently as Thursday’s meeting in Fort Erie, Ont. The meeting ended in disagreement over whether to discuss “legal matters” in executive session, reflecting the tense atmosphere that still surrounds the authority.

Both sides now address their relationship almost in diplomatic parlance.

“I’m encouraged by the fact our projects are going forward despite some lingering tensions,” said authority Vice Chairman Anthony M. Annunziata of Ontario. “Many of those tensions result from issues outside the board, and that’s all I’m going to say on that matter.”

Sam Hoyt, the board’s chairman and a Cuomo confidant, said the governor remains pleased with how the authority operates a vital border crossing and with progress on projects costing about $158 million.

“The goals of the agreement the governor and the ambassador were party to are being achieved,” Hoyt said. “Are there still tensions and hiccups along the way? Yes. But the most important thing is that we are living up to the expectations of the public, and I submit we are doing exactly that.”

Those tensions escalated into something akin to an international incident last year, especially after some local state legislators introduced a bill in Albany seeking to dissolve the binational board.

Though that proposal is now dead, one source familiar with the situation said the move still sticks in the Canadians’ craw.

“There is some cynicism and mistrust given the history,” said the Canadian source, who asked not to be identified. “There’s this constant threat to dissolve the authority again.”

The two lead sponsors of the move to secede from the binational authority – Republican Sen. Mark J. Grisanti and Democratic Assemblyman Sean M. Ryan, both of Buffalo – now say they are pleased with the pace of progress on the bridge and have no immediate plans to reintroduce their legislation.

Grisanti said he hopes any tension remains confined to the boardroom so as to avoid affecting further progress.

Ryan, however, continues to insist the bridge operates under an antiquated governance system more appropriate to the 1930s. He pointed to confusion created by laws of different countries as well as the need for a unified authority governing all Niagara River crossings in Buffalo and Niagara Falls.

“It took the extraordinary act of proposing dissolution and the strong hand of the governor and ambassador getting involved just to get to this point,” Ryan said. “We should enjoy it while it lasts.”

He said he has no plans to seek dissolution again following the agreement reached last year.

But he believes the main objective of the Peace Bridge Authority and Niagara Falls Bridge Commission is to preserve well-paying jobs like general manager and that they represent relics.

He said he maintains a close watch, and a serious situation could again develop.

“If things flare up, we’ll respond,” he said.

Still, not every legislator in Western New York has embraced Cuomo’s approach to the situation. When the New York-Canada memo was signed last June, Democratic Assemblyman Robin L. Schimminger of Kenmore already voted against the dissolution bill and at the time said the new agreement produced nothing significant beyond the projects the authority previously approved. He also blamed the international tension on the New York appointees to the authority.

Schimminger reiterated those concerns last week.

“Perhaps the legacy of last year’s international incident still lingers,” he said. “But it remains to be seen.”