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By Dylan S. McLean

The recent Peace Bridge fiasco is shameful. The Peace Bridge Authority’s well-earned reputation for binational amicability, earned through decades of cooperation, has been tarnished. The best possible solution will be realized through a healthy dose of humility by all interested parties. Altering its proven governance structure is no solution.

Structures spanning an international border connect, and cannot be separated from, multiple levels of government bureaucracy and jurisdictional environments. Each jurisdiction has regulations that do not span the border, yet the bridge does. It cannot be divided physically. Further, because of this unique operational environment, it should not be divided operationally.

Twenty-four bridges and one tunnel link the United States and Canada. Last year, Munroe Eagles and I concluded an in-depth study of the governance regimes used at a healthy majority of these facilities, including our local bridges.

What did we find? The unified governance model in place at the Peace Bridge is best positioned to deal with the multiplicity of challenges imposed by the facility’s cross-border character.

The arrangement being proposed by Assemblyman Sean Ryan, D-Buffalo, and his counterparts would place the Peace Bridge on the path toward the worst possible governance regime. Dysfunction, division and inefficiency may occur in unified governance structures – as they can in any organization – but they are built into the organizational structure of divided governance.

Republican State Sen. Mark Grisanti – a supporter of the Ryan proposal – pointed to the Blue Water Bridge as an example of what the Peace Bridge could be. This is laughable. That bridge links Sarnia, Ont., with Port Huron, Mich. Its ownership, governance and management are split.

A 2007 examination by the auditor general of Canada cited numerous dysfunctions and inefficiencies attributable to divided management. For example, because engineering inspection reports were not shared across the border, the Canadian authority was not even able to ascertain whether the bridge would reach its expected lifespan.

Today the situation at the Blue Water Bridge has improved considerably. This is largely attributable to the skill and the personalities of current management on each side of the border. The institutional structure remains a challenge. Duplication and inefficiencies remain, and are reflected in tolls that are collected in both directions.

Organizations of all types are vulnerable to personality enhanced or incited dysfunction. There is no institutional design that can eliminate the potential for internal conflict. However, a divided institutional arrangement maximizes the potential for conflict and dysfunction.

Dylan S. McLean is an instructor in the Department of Political Science at the University at Buffalo.