on May 24, 2013 - 1:38 PM
, updated May 24, 2013 at 1:42 PM
FORT ERIE, Ont. – Canadian and American members of the Peace Bridge Authority came together again Friday with almost $150 million worth of projects on their drawing board, but they could not even agree on minutes from a previous meeting.
For the foreseeable future, it appears that’s how things will be on the Peace Bridge.
A rock-solid stalemate stuck on a 5-5 voting deadlock has now gripped the authority for the second month in a row as the New York delegation attempts to execute Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s vision for an expanded Buffalo plaza, while Canadians hold fast for scheduled projects they insist remain crucial to the span’s future.
And it seems that the harder Cuomo and his forces push, the deeper the Canadians dig in.
“I still think there is a lot of tension,” authority Chairman Anthony M. Annunziata – a Canadian – said after the meeting. “I think things have to change.”
He also warned that the Customs preclearance pilot project aimed at moving inspection of U.S.-bound trucks to the Fort Erie plaza remains “absolutely at risk” as a result of the conflict.
The net effect is not only a deepening international split on the previously placid authority, but also new questions about the future of major projects like replacing the span’s 86-year-old deck. Cuomo loyalists are trying to dissolve the binational panel with legislation introduced this week in Albany.
General Manager Ron Reinas, a Canadian whose firing has been demanded by the U.S. contingent, may have summarized the essence of the conflict at Friday’s meeting.
“When you are dealing with two sides on a border, you can’t work in isolation,” he said. “It simply does not work that way.”
But at least some degree of isolation is now very much part of the discussion. A bill exploring creation of two separate entities to run the bridge introduced by Democratic Assemblyman Sean M. Ryan of Buffalo and Republican State Sens. Mark J. Grisanti of Buffalo and George D. Maziarz of Newfane threatens the authority’s ability to enter the bond market for its scheduled projects, according to Reinas.
“The legislation is incredibly damaging to the financial stature of the Peace Bridge Authority,” Reinas said at Friday’s meeting. “It basically makes it impossible for us to remarket our bonds in the spring and summer of 2014. It would force us to delay or defer $50 million worth of projects.”
Those projects, he said, include a new Customs plaza on the Fort Erie side and widening approaches to the bridge on both ends. Another $100 million would be affected for replacing the span’s original deck in 2015, he added.
Ryan countered late Friday with his own view that much of the work can be performed without bonding. And he sees only benefits from a new governance system for the bridge.
“All the members of the Fort Erie Five, as well as the executive director, are looking to maintain their power, prestige and influence at the expense of progress on the Buffalo side of the Peace Bridge,” Ryan said. “The PBA has a 20-year legacy of failure. They have wasted millions on plans that never materialized.”
Canadian members moved to bring the issue to a head at Friday’s meeting by trying to remarket authority bonds earlier than scheduled. But like all efforts at the Peace Bridge in recent weeks, that vote deadlocked, 5-5.
“I wanted to make sure the authority had the borrowing and debt capacity to move forward,” Annunziata told reporters later. “Unfortunately, the American board members did not see fit to support that today.
“I’m completely puzzled,” he added. “I would like to move forward on these projects.”
Reinas, meanwhile, said no work on the Buffalo plaza could begin until 2015, when the results of the preclearance experiment are submitted. That involves a program to determine if U.S.-bound trucks can be successfully inspected on the more-spacious Fort Erie plaza. Until the pilot project is pronounced a success, he said, it is unclear whether truck inspection can even be moved to Fort Erie.
Meanwhile, Annunziata reiterated his belief that the authority’s first priority is to maintain the bridge itself and that gridlock and the threat of authority dissolution hangs a cloud over future projects that already received unanimous approval by Canadians and Americans.
“This board has unanimously approved all these projects before,” added Canadian board member Rocco Vacca. “No one at this table has voted against these projects to date.”
Meanwhile, New York caucus leader Sam Hoyt emphasized that Cuomo has taken no position on the bills to dissolve the authority.
But he echoed Ryan’s argument that 21 of 26 northern border crossings are administered by separate state and provincial entities. And when Reinas offered an opinion from the authority’s legal counsel, Hoyt claimed that he had no authorization from the board to seek such counsel and that to base further action on one such opinion “is irresponsible, inappropriate and possibly inaccurate.”
Countered Annunziata: “Without the ability to borrow, you don’t have the ability to finance. Without the ability to finance, you can’t go forward. That’s the bottom line.”
Reinas added that dissolving the authority could not happen until 2020 even if all outstanding bonds were immediately paid, according to Canadian law. In addition to action by New York State, he said similar approval is needed from the government of Canada and the U.S. secretary of state.
The only new element to the controversy surfacing Friday was the first meeting attended by Anthony M. Masiello, whom Cuomo appointed to a board vacancy this week. The former mayor, a staunch Cuomo ally, voted in sync with the other New York members and touted the Cuomo vision.
“For the first time in a long time, you’ve got a governor who wants to roll up his sleeves and get involved,” he said after the meeting. “And for people to get their noses out of joint on this is appalling.”
Other members of local government joined in that view with a statement issued late Friday. Led by Buffalo Comptroller Mark J.F. Schroeder, they pledged “full support” for Cuomo’s goals and lambasted Annunziata for “increasingly intemperate personal attacks on Gov. Cuomo.”
“The chair doesn’t even attempt to veil his comments in the pretext of a basic policy disagreement; he simply chooses to smear the governor,” said a statement also signed by Ryan, Grisanti, Maziarz, Niagara Council Member David A. Rivera and State Sen. Timothy M. Kennedy.
“Mr. Annunziata owes the governor an apology,” they added.
But Masiello also said he hopes to play a “conciliator” role on the authority. “I really believe that if we get the right people at the table we can resolve these issues,” he said, adding he recognizes that Annunziata is still seeking Hoyt’s removal from the board.
“We have lost sight of the issues; we’re more into personalities than we are results,” he said.
In another development, the potential sale of the Episcopal Church Home, which the state plans for an expanded Buffalo plaza, received a green light in State Supreme Court on Friday, when Justice James H. Dillon said that he did not object and that the sale is in the not-for-profit corporation’s interest.
The State Attorney General’s Office has oversight of charities, and Assistant Attorney General William D. Maldovan told Dillon the office had no objection to the sale.
Dillon signed the order allowing the sale to move forward Friday. The order is a legal requirement for the sale to proceed, though it does not guarantee it will happen.