The bid in the New York State Legislature to put the Peace Bridge Authority out of business is something other than it appears and is, in fact, worth the effort, not only in terms of producing progress on the bridge and plaza but also of creating a more accountable management structure.
The legislation, pushed by Assemblyman Sean M. Ryan, D-Buffalo, and Sen. Mark J. Grisanti, R-Buffalo, and with broad support in the entire Western New York delegation, would not, as many believe, automatically put the Peace Bridge Authority out of business. Indeed, it might not ever do that. What it would do is impose the same regulations on this authority as exist on all other New York State authorities.
That, perhaps, is the first thing to understand. While the authority includes an equal number of American and Canadian members, it is, in fact, a creature of the state of New York, whose public authorities, by law, must go out of business if they carry no debt.
Debt that produces public projects is the reason for authorities to exist. They borrow money to build a highway or airport or bridge or customs plaza, then use tolls and other user fees to pay off the debt. When the debt is gone, so is the justification for the authority’s existence.
Under the Ryan-Grisanti legislation, the Peace Bridge Authority would be required to pay off its $50 million debt next year, and there seems little reason not to do so. Given that the authority has more than enough in reserves, the only reason to avoid paying off that debt is to extend the authority’s life. And that can’t be done without at least one vote from the American members. That vote is not forthcoming.
What may be forthcoming is a vote in the State Legislature to impose on this authority the rules that apply to all others: Carry debt or go out of business. Thus, under the Ryan-Grisanti measure, the authority will retire its debt and then be required to go out of business, unless it accumulates additional debt. Again, that would require American votes, an eventuality that we suspect will depend on seeing real progress on important projects in Buffalo.
PBA Chairman Anthony M. Annunziata, a Canadian, has lashed back, perceiving the forceful hand of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo behind these maneuvers. We would grant that Cuomo is unlike most previous governors, in that he is insisting on progress and is not afraid of breaking some eggs. But what we see is a governor trying to change the do-nothing dynamic of the past 20 years.
It is true that a lot of the blame for a lack of progress can be traced to dysfunction in years past among various groups and individuals on the American side, but the authority cannot hold itself blameless, either. We don’t know if the Ryan-Grisanti measure will create the change that Buffalo needs, but at a minimum, it creates leverage and, if nothing else, could lead to a better form of governance than one that seems wretchedly unable to produce.
It is possible, of course, that the legislation will pass and the authority still won’t find a way forward, forcing itself out of business. Even then, that opens the door to creating a more accountable and efficient form of governance for the bridge. This one isn’t working so well.
For those reasons, we support this legislation with the hope that it will finally focus attention on Buffalo’s need to improve its plaza – the one in Fort Erie has already been rebuilt – and, after more than 20 years, put an end to this pathetic story of non-achievement.