A defiant Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Wednesday pointed to the Peace Bridge as a Western New York symbol of economic stagnation while defending his aggressive and controversial approach to spur development on its U.S. plaza.
During a meeting with editors and reporters of The Buffalo News, Cuomo for the first time addressed a bitter dispute with Canadian members of the Peace Bridge Authority over his efforts to expand the Buffalo plaza.
And he made it clear he considers the current disagreement as inconsequential compared with failing to address overall Peace Bridge problems for more than two decades.
“Everyone should ask themselves how this has happened for 20 years,” he said. “The Peace Bridge, to me, is a metaphor of the dysfunction, and could be a metaphor in a positive way.”
Cuomo dismissed Canadian demands for him to fire his top representative on the Peace Bridge Authority – Empire State Development Corp. Regional President Sam Hoyt – with a curt “yup” when asked if he would continue, followed by “nope” when asked if he felt any pressure to replace him. He said the current stalemate at the authority does not stem from recent controversies, but more from frustration over a lack of progress dating from the late 1980s.
“The latest situation, I’m not an expert on,” he said. “Put the latest episode aside, and that’s my point. It’s not about three weeks; it’s about 20 years. Do we have to get something going? Yes. At a minimum, do you have to get that plaza going so you can get traffic moving? Yes.”
Tensions have mounted over the last month as Canadian members of the Bridge Authority have balked at the state’s sometimes unilateral efforts to acquire property and expand the Buffalo plaza to improve traffic flow – a move that Albany calls paramount to enhancing trade in the region.
But Cuomo said the Canadian resentment and stalemate resulting from the failure to reach binational consensus have not affected his approach. He again pointed to years of inactivity at the bridge, derisively referring to the “juggernaut” of development at the international span.
“You mean we could possibly slow down the great progress that has been made for 20 years? Is that what you’re suggesting?” he asked. “I don’t think that’s a problem.”
He said he is not content to let anyone interfere with plans for improving the Buffalo plaza but offered no specifics on how to end one of the most serious disputes in the 86-year history of the bridge.
“You fix the situation, and you move forward,” he said, and referred to the role assigned to Lt. Gov. Robert J. Duffy to find consensus.
“People are talking,” Cuomo said. “The lieutenant governor is talking to people.”
He also said he has had no contact with Canadian government officials on the matter.
The state has initiated some actions on its own, such as beginning purchase of the former Episcopal Church Home property on Busti Avenue to prepare for eventual plaza expansion and improved traffic flow.
But Canadian members of the authority have not been willing to give carte blanche approval to the state to spend about $95 million for developing the Buffalo plaza – prompting the latest and most serious rift between the two delegations.
As a result, the New Yorkers have demanded the resignation of authority General Manager Ron Reinas, a Canadian, while their Ontario counterparts say they won’t work with Hoyt.
Canadians also have expressed outrage at the direct complaints about the situation registered by top Cuomo staffers with the federal government in Ottawa, and what they call personal disparagement of Reinas and his job performance.
Cuomo administration officials, meanwhile, express hope that Wednesday’s State Senate confirmation of former Mayor Anthony M. Masiello as a New York representative to the Bridge Authority will help ease the situation. He succeeds Patrick J. Whalen, chief financial officer of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, who resigned in late April at the onset of the dispute.
But if there was a theme to which Cuomo returned during his Buffalo visit, it was emphasizing the state’s determination to reverse what he called decades of inactivity. Like other administration officials, he cited progress in planning a new $5 billion Tappan Zee Bridge over the lower Hudson River, saying that the same aggressive timetable should be adopted at the Niagara River.
“I came in a year ago and said I’m going to rebuild the bridge now,” he said, referring to replacing the Tappan Zee and the inaction by previous administrations.
“Now the whole region is energized,” Cuomo said of the lower Hudson Valley. “That could all have been happening here. It’s billions of dollars in economic activity and positive energy. What can you learn from the Tappan Zee? You gotta get it done.”
He described his vision for an enhanced Peace Bridge plaza as a place for increased traffic flow, new secondary customs inspections facilities and “making the trip more vehicle-friendly, more doable; getting more people over the bridge faster.”
The situation is expected to next be addressed directly Friday, when Canadian and American members of the authority have their next regular meeting in Fort Erie, Ont. U.S. members, who boycotted several meetings at the beginning of the year, indicated that they plan to attend the meeting.