All major construction projects are now on hold at the Peace Bridge because of uncertainty raised by newly introduced legislation in Albany designed to dissolve the Bridge Authority, the agency’s chairman said Tuesday.
Peace Bridge Authority Chairman Anthony M. Annunziata, who has been in a war of words with New York officials, said a new bill pending in the State Legislature would create a fiduciary obligation by the authority’s members not to proceed with $130 million in construction initiatives because the agency would have to be in a position to pay off about $38 million in outstanding bonds.
Annunziata, a Canadian, said the suspension includes plans to redeck the 86-year-old bridge, as well as work on a U.S. Customs plaza warehouse for secondary inspections and an approach-widening project.
“The fact that this legislation has even been introduced to have the Peace Bridge pay back its bonds is a threat to the Peace Bridge, but also stops all progress and construction going forward,” Annunziata said in an interview with The Buffalo News.
“Unequivocally, this stops everything,” Annunziata said. “You cannot fund those things if you don’t have certainty. And if you don’t have certainty, you can’t move forward with any projects.”
His warnings came in advance of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s visit to Buffalo today, and the recent Peace Bridge controversies are a topic certain to be raised. It also came soon after word spread in the State Capitol that Cuomo had quietly nominated former Buffalo Mayor Anthony M. Masiello for a vacant spot on the authority’s board.
Asked about joining the board during an increasingly bitter dispute between the Canadian and American sides, Masiello said, “We’re all in this thing to make something better. It’s not going to be easy. I think there’s some challenges, but I don’t think they are that complicated. We have to work on what’s right for both sides of the border.”
Masiello is expected to be confirmed today by the State Senate, which is considered remarkably speedy by Albany standards.
Annunziata, meanwhile, said that just the introduction of the measure to dissolve the Bridge Authority by State Sen. Mark J. Grisanti, R-Buffalo, and Assemblyman Sean M. Ryan, D-Buffalo, is enough to raise doubts about a funding mechanism to pay off existing bonds. As a result, he said, the authority can’t proceed with expensive new construction initiatives.
“Who introduces legislation to dissolve the Peace Bridge Authority without understanding the consequences?” he said. “As long as that legislation is out there and being debated, it all stops.
“It’s enormously irresponsible and reckless, without having a conversation with the authority or understanding its consequences,” he added
Lt. Gov. Robert J. Duffy issued a statement on behalf of the Cuomo administration Tuesday evening, saying: “We are committed to making the current structure work and are confident that our counterparts in Canada feel the same way.”
The latest developments come month after the Cuomo administration wrote to Canada’s transport minister to blame Canadians on the Peace Bridge Authority for construction delays on the Buffalo side. The administration called on the Canadians to replace the authority’s general manager, Ron Reinas, a Canadian.
The Cuomo administration’s move was greeted by Annunziata’s vow that he would no longer be able to work with Sam Hoyt, his counterpart on the board and Cuomo’s handpicked appointee.
The Cuomo administration sought to tamp down the tensions, sending Duffy to meet with Annunziata in Niagara Falls, N.Y. Canadians were hopeful – incorrectly, as it turns out – that this meeting would stop calls by Grisanti and Ryan to proceed with their legislation to permit the authority to pay off its existing bonds and then go out of existence.
The legislation, according to a memo by Grisanti and Ryan accompanying the bill, would not mandate the dissolution of the authority, but would “allow the authority to determine when it has stopped being effective.” The bridge’s property “would then be divided between Canada and New York State,” the legislative memo states.
Ryan said late Tuesday that bridge redecking is not slated until 2015 and that he understands the other projects will be paid for by the authority’s $90 million reserve fund. He also said he does not necessarily buy Annunziata’s contention until he sees it in writing from bond underwriters.
“They can claim all they want,” Ryan said. “This is the end product of 20 years of bad management structure, and we’re going to fix that.”
He lamented the fact that an Ontario resident is now thwarting the will of New York’s representatives on the authority and reiterated his contention that most northern border crossings are administered by state and provincial agencies on either side of the border.
Grisanti said that the Canadian concerns about his legislation are misplaced and that his intent is to end the logjams that have blocked construction efforts on the U.S. side. Calling the current Bridge Authority “an impediment” to progress, he said that it “was not supposed to be there in perpetuity.”
The senator said the Bridge Authority chairman’s threats of halting construction are hollow. “There really aren’t any plans for any plaza or upgrade on our side, and that’s the whole reason why we are moving forward with this legislation,” Grisanti said.
Ryan praised the selection of Masiello to be the new New York representative on the authority and said he did not expect that the former mayor’s representation of the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority as an Albany lobbyist would cause a problem, even if the NFTA could emerge as the successor to the Bridge Authority.
“If it gets closer to happening,” Ryan said, “I imagine the mayor would step down or recuse himself.”
In an interview Tuesday, Masiello confirmed his nomination by Cuomo.
“I’m very excited. I see this as an excellent opportunity,” Masiello said. “I’m familiar with the Peace Bridge. I’m familiar with both sides of the border, and I think I have a lot to offer.”