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The Niagara River still is pretty cold this time of year, which is why Andrew Cuomo might want to find an exit before he drives off of the Peace Bridge.

I hate to be the one to break it to the governor, but: In the high-stakes game of Peace Bridge chicken he is playing, the Canadians are driving the speeding tractor-trailer. Cuomo is behind the wheel of a Chevy Vega. He can either sensibly pull off onto the ramp, or end up in the drink. His move.

The governor’s attempts to bring Canada to heel, in the name of fast-forwarding a U.S. plaza facelift, with each passing day look more like a bluff that has backfired.

As bad as the Canadian versus American battle on the bridge authority has been, it potentially can get worse.

Sources tell me that the Canadians, weary of Cuomo’s Ugly American act, are ready to flex their muscle. It would not take much for Canadian Customs officers to make life tougher for countrymen returning home with carloads of stuff bought at our malls. It would be a quick way to slow the flow of Canadian shoppers, pump up Ontario retail – and make a dent in cash registers across Western New York. Ouch.

Longer term, Ottawa might contemplate changes to cost-spiking Canadian airport regulations. That could make it cheaper for our Ontario neighbors to fly out of Toronto and less likely to trek to Buffalo. Jet Blue and Southwest may not hang around for long if the steady stream of Canadian fliers slows to a trickle. The hotels ringing the airport would take a huge hit.

Clearly, Cuomo is not the only one who can throw the high, hard one.

I am not saying the Canadians will bring out the heavy artillery, just that they have it on hand if the battle keeps raging.

It doesn’t need to come to this. I have no idea whether the governor is getting bad advice, is surrounded by nodding bobbleheads, or merely insists on speeding headlong into oncoming traffic. Instead of looking for a face-saving exit – the usual political move when your end game hits a dead end – Cuomo seems to be stepping harder on the gas.

Still moving through the State Legislature is the bill to dissolve the Peace Bridge Authority, leaving each side to run its own plaza. Not only does it have little chance of getting the necessary sign-off in Washington and Ottawa, but dissolving the bridge authority would bring pain to Buffalo. If there is no bridge authority, we have to add toll booths on the already-claustrophobic U.S. plaza.

If there is no bridge authority, Canadians will want an equal share of that third lane now commonly used for U.S.-bound traffic – lengthening the wait time to cross into Buffalo. Note to the governor: Be careful what you wish for.

You know things are getting desperate when the troops are ordered to rally. Thursday’s dog-and-pony news conference, featuring a gaggle of high-profile business/political types, was a transparently lame attempt to portray an “independent” consensus backing Cuomo’s stance. Yet each of the attendees had an obvious tie to the governor.

Nearly as weak was a piece in The News on the same day, defending the bill to erase the bridge authority. The bill’s sponsors – Assemblyman Sean Ryan and State Sen. Mark Grisanti – wrote that the bridge authority is dysfunctional because it is unable to borrow money to fix the U.S. plaza. They neglected to mention that the reason the bridge authority can’t sell its bonds is because of the uncertainty caused by the Ryan/Grisanti bill. Shameless.

It all might be amusing, if the stakes were not so high.

What’s at risk is the progress that Cuomo purports to endorse. The anti-bridge authority bill threatens the plan to pre-inspect U.S.-bound trucks in the spacious Fort Erie plaza. Pounded out after more than a decade of wheel-spinning, thanks largely to the field work of Sen. Chuck Schumer and Rep. Brian Higgins, it might be the largest step forward since the last bridge rivet was driven.

Truck pre-inspection would take idling 18-wheelers off the bridge, speed cross-border commerce and cut the exhaust fumes that damage lungs across the West Side. Cuomo’s muscle-flex not only puts the plan at risk. It presumably is not appreciated by fellow Democrats Schumer, although he has not said anything publicly, nor by Higgins – who last week broke ranks and called for Cuomo’s proxies to pull the anti-bridge authority bill. It still stands.

Fasten your seat belts.

Unless somebody pulls to the side of the road, and soon, the game of cross-border chicken will soon claim casualties. You don’t have to be Kofi Annan to craft an obvious exit strategy: Each side sacrifices a prime bridge player or two in the name of peace, re-affirms deadlines for the U.S. plaza facelift, pulls the anti-bridge authority bill and declares binational victory. Then we can get on with the business of ending the bumper-car maze of the Buffalo plaza. Then we can lock down the truck pre-inspection deal that will mercifully take idling, exhaust-belching 18-wheelers off the bridge.

Now that’s what anyone – Canadian or American – would call progress. Even, I suspect, the governor.

email: desmonde@buffnews.com