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Editorial: A plan for the plaza

After decades of delays and squabbles and flat-out intransigence, it’s time to fix the Peace Bridge plaza. The need is great and the money is likely to be available. Well into the 21st century, it’s crazy to continue tolerating an ill-designed and antiquated international gateway.

The good news is that Erie County’s two congressmen – a Democrat and a Republican – are working together to demand creative action on a matter that is critical not only to Buffalo, but to the entire country. Their approach would create a safer, more efficient and attractive crossing than exists now.

The entry to the United States is long out of date, with cobwebbed border technology that falls far short of the need at the country’s busiest border crossing and in an era of heightened risk. It creates delays that can been seen almost daily, as idling trucks back up on the bridge, wasting time and fuel while polluting the air in Buffalo’s West Side.

Nearly as bad, the plaza’s confused design is dangerous, with vehicles crisscrossing each other after clearing customs. Less important, perhaps, but still unwanted is that it presents a dour first impression to travelers entering the country at the doorstep of a historic American city. We can do better and there is no compelling reason not to move ahead.

The plan, as described by Reps. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, and Chris Collins, R-Clarence, would be to move technology, not people, to the Fort Erie side of the Peace Bridge where there is more elbow room, radiation detectors, X-ray machines, license plate readers and facial recognition technology that could be put into place. That would help to speed traffic and reduce the fumes emitted by idling cars and trucks. Border agents would remain stationed in Buffalo, which by moving the technology to Canada, would have more space for its necessary operations.

Critically, the plan doesn’t anticipate expanding the plaza’s current 17-acre footprint beyond, perhaps, the 2.4-acre Episcopal Home site which is controlled by the state and three vacant parcels of land along Busti Avenue. That should offer some reassurance to neighborhood residents concerned about losing land.

The project could be jointly funded by the Peace Bridge Authority, which has $50 million available for the purpose, and by the federal government, which Higgins believes could provide another $50 million. With that, he believes work could be completed within three years.

There is, of course, opposition. Niagara District Council Member David A. Rivera said in a press release that “I do not support any expansion of the Peace Bridge’s U.S. Plaza,” seeing further encroachment further into the neighborhood as both unnecessary and detrimental. Community activist Kathleen R. Mecca worries that truck traffic will inundate Busti Avenue.

To be sure, there are bound to be issues that will require good-faith discussions by all interested parties. But it is also undeniable that much of the previous opposition to Peace Bridge projects has been based, not on finding an acceptable way forward, but on simply blocking any action, even those that ultimately benefited the neighborhood.

But the bridge is here; it isn’t going away. This is, and will remain, an international border crossing. Opponents cannot wish it away. The infrastructure needs to be maintained and upgraded as technology improves and threats change.

Canada has vastly improved its plaza on the Fort Erie side of the bridge. The challenges are greater here, in a more populous community, but they need to be overcome by a community committed to finding the best way forward.

The area is fortunate that Higgins and Collins are working together on this. It’s the kind of bipartisan effort that Washington can’t see to tolerate these days. Their example serves the interests both of this area and of the nation. It’s up to the community to match their example.

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