Just when it seemed we were getting somewhere. Andrew Cuomo’s muscle-flexing on the Peace Bridge may have done more than raise cross-border tensions, freeze progress and reanimate long-dead animosities from the War of 1812.
The governor’s assault on the Peace Bridge Authority may put at risk the largest leap forward on the bridge in this millennium.
After more than a decade of gear-grinding, we were poised to take a giant step: pre-inspecting in Fort Erie all of the U.S.-bound, exhaust-belching 18-wheelers that commonly clog a traffic lane and spew fumes into lungs across Buffalo’s West Side – and whose inspection booths would potentially hog much of a remade Buffalo plaza.
All of that changes with truck pre-inspection. It took a meeting of America’s president and Canada’s prime minister two years ago to pave the way for an 18-month pre-inspection test run. Compromise was found on the longtime roadblock of U.S. Customs officers keeping their guns on the Canadian side. It was a “glory hallelujah” moment with huge benefits to Buffalo: shorter lines on the bridge, fewer tie-ups, far less asthma-provoking fumes, more cross-border commerce and, eventually, a sane U.S. plaza – instead of the current cross-traffic, construction-barrier Rorschach.
Among those backing the idea was Cuomo. Ironically, the first-term governor’s recent – and, to my mind, misguided – attempt to speed plaza-expansion progress by grabbing the reins may threaten the pre-inspection deal.
Cuomo’s reputation for getting things done is matched only by his smash-mouth style. Among his Peace Bridge points of attack is a bill written by legislative allies to dissolve the authority. Although it looks to me like more of a pressure tactic than a serious push, it has real-world ripples. Canadian bridge authority members – and they have American sympathizers – complain that the proposed bill not only discourages banks from lending the money needed to, among other things, remake the U.S. plaza. They say it threatens the fragile truck pre-inspection deal that is just months away from happening.
Among those ticked off are officials who pounded at the pre-inspection roadblock long before Cuomo showed up with his discipline stick and “My Way” schtick.
Asked last week if the bill in the State Legislature has a ripple effect that threatens the truck pre-inspection plan, Canadian authority member Anthony Annunziata replied, “Without borrowing capacity, absolutely it’s at risk.”
Aside from clouding the future, the Cuomo-inspired “dissolve the authority” movement gives U.S. Customs – which sources tell me has never been thrilled about the truck pre-inspection idea – a convenient exit door. I am told that questions already are being asked about who would run the Canadian side if the bridge authority disappeared.
“This allows Customs to sandbag,” an informed source who requested anonymity, wary of Cuomo blow back, said of the bill. “It gives them a reason not to do this.”
Cuomo’s muscle is such that few American officials publicly question him. So it was notable this month when a half-dozen Western New York state lawmakers urged Canadian members in a letter to keep the pre-inspection deal on track. One of the signees, Assemblyman Robin Schimminger, told me Thursday that “the very tenor of this contretemps jeopardizes the necessary cooperation and collaboration that is the underpinning of the pre-inspection program.”
The bridge authority that Cuomo’s proxies claim is gumming up the plaza-remaking works has signed off on $50 million of upgrades to the U.S. side and is poised to launch $100 million more.
Although Cuomophiles complain that plaza improvements in recent years have been on the Canadian side, they conveniently forget that the stuff was in large part done to ease congestion on the cramped, neighborhood-elbowing U.S. entryway.
Cuomo rates credit for busting through plenty of Albany gridlock. But his pull stops at the border. His attempt – partly for political reasons – to grab the wheel on what for 86 years has been a binationally run bridge looks to me like an overreach, and is viewed as arrogant by Canadian members.
Unless Cuomo turns down the heat, the equal Canadian-U.S. split on the authority is the formula for a stalemate that nobody wants.
As bad as that inertia would be, we are used to running in place on the Peace Bridge. Losing the pre-inspection deal would be a giant leap backwards. If that gets blown, it’s on Cuomo’s back.