ALBANY – A group of state lawmakers Tuesday offered an olive branch to Canadian Peace Bridge officials, urging them to keep on track a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity’’ to begin a historic pilot project that allows U.S. customs agents onto Canadian soil to inspect American-bound cargo trucks.
The letter, signed by five area Democratic members of the Assembly and one Republican state senator, was sent to Peace Bridge Authority Chairman Anthony Annunziata, who has been involved in a war of words with Cuomo administration officials in recent weeks over everything from personnel matters to construction plans on the Buffalo side.
The pre-inspection program was approved by Washington and Ottawa as a pilot initiative to more quickly move traffic and reduce pollution levels in just two spots in North America: the Peace Bridge and a span between the State of Washington and British Columbia.
“We want to make sure that we do not lose this opportunity to create jobs and keep traffic flowing across the bridge,” said Assemblyman Michael Kearns, a Buffalo Democrat, who signed the letter. “There will not be a new bridge, and there is no solution to move truck traffic off the Peace Bridge. It’s the most sensible solution to do the truck inspections on the Canadian side. And we want them to know there are other legislators out there willing to sit down with them and think rationally and not point fingers.’’
Kearns said in an interview that he was worried the recent dispute could spin out of control and delay the pre-inspection facility from opening as planned in November in Fort Erie, Ont.
“We have to have diplomacy. We have to have statesmen and people coming up with resolutions,’’ Kearns said.
He said the pre-inspection program will reduce idling of trucks on the Buffalo side, helping to reduce health problems, such as asthma, in nearby neighborhoods.
Kearns’ comment comes a couple weeks after three area state legislators – Assembly Democrat Sean Ryan and Republican Sens. Mark Grisanti and George Maziarz – floated a plan to dissolve the Peace Bridge Authority.
That call came a day after it was revealed in The Buffalo News that the Cuomo administration had written a top Canadian federal official, blaming Canadian board members for delaying improvements on the U.S. side and calling for the firing of a top Canadian staff member of the authority.
The authority is binational, run by five American and five Canadian board members.
Friday, a group of lawmakers, including some who wrote to Annunziata on Tuesday, wrote to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and offered their “solidarity and full support of your efforts’’ in his fight to upgrade the U.S. plaza.
But in the letter to the Canadian bridge authority leader Tuesday, the half-dozen lawmakers said they were offering their “solid and full support’’ for the truck pre-inspection program.
The White House and Sen. Charles E. Schumer have been pushing for the program, and U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Canadian Minister of Public Safety Vic Toews gave their approvals in March.
The lawmakers noted it is estimated that more than 90 percent of the commercial trucks will be released to enter the United States at the new Canadian-based facility in a one-year pilot program.
Among those signing the Tuesday letter was Ryan, who has led the effort to end the bridge authority.
Ryan said Tuesday that the authority has outlived its usefulness and there are better models available for running a bridge between two nations. Ryan said his fight against Annunziata and Canadian Peace Bridge members had no bearing on signing the new letter supporting the truck inspection facility.
“This letter has no issue to the larger issue at hand,’’ he said, adding, “It seemed like a celebration of the obvious: We all support joint border management.’’
Ryan said the bridge authority is only carrying out U.S. and Canadian federal policy with the inspection program.
“I hope they are not a player on the scene long-term, but as long as they are, we have to deal with them,’’ he said of the authority.
Assemblyman Robin Schimminger, a Kenmore Democrat, who wrote the Tuesday letter, said the concern that the new border dispute could delay the pre-inspection project “was a principal motivator’’ for the letter.
The Canadians have long opposed allowing U.S. agents on their land to inspect U.S.-bound cargo, he said, but loosened that opposition with the deal announced earlier this year.
“Only two border crossings have this opportunity. It’s been agreed to by both national governments. It would be terrible if this opportunity went up in smoke with the current difficulties at hand,’’ Schimminger said.
Ottawa has not sent signals that the controversy could delay the inspection project. In a statement to The News last week, Denis Lebel, Canada’s minister of transport, said that Canada anticipates the Peace Bridge will move ahead with the pre-inspection program that is part of the Beyond the Border Action Plan that Washington and Ottawa have agreed upon.
Also signing the letter were Assembly members Crystal Peoples-Stokes and Dennis Gabryszak and Sen. Patrick Gallivan.