Back on Oct. 12, Canadian and American members of the Peace Bridge Authority gathered at Fort Erie, Ont., headquarters to amicably and routinely approve construction projects for the next several years.
In a unanimous vote, the 10-member panel authorized about $50 million worth of improvements: a new secondary customs inspection facility on the Buffalo plaza, widening the Buffalo approach to the Peace Bridge, a customs pre-inspection pilot project in Canada, and engineering for replacement of the 86-year-old span’s original deck.
All was right with the world.
But by the binational authority’s December meeting, the New York contingent was rallying around different priorities that, it says, failed to even appear on drawing boards.
Now, the different emphasis on priorities lies at the heart of the most bitter dispute in the long history of the international span.
“Something changed,” said Ron Rienas, a Canadian who serves as general manager of the Peace Bridge Authority. “Right after the board adopted that capital budget, they wanted us to write them a check for $95 million.”
That authority money, Rienas explained, was to be entrusted to New York State to develop a Buffalo plaza deemed crucial for the commercial and tourist traffic at the second-busiest crossing on the U.S.-Canadian border. While Rienas said Canadian members of the authority have never disputed the eventual need for an expanded plaza in Buffalo, they do question the shift in priorities – a shift, he says, that has yet to be explained to the full board.
“Even to this day,” he said, “no resolution has been ever introduced to change anything they have already approved.”
It was obvious as far back as Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s 2012 State of the State address, however, that progress on the Peace Bridge stood as a top priority of his new administration.
By April of that year, Cuomo was calling for state action to acquire the Episcopal properties and Busti Avenue, while pointing to inaction at the bridge as a 20-year symbol of dysfunction and stagnation.
“Could you now slow the progress? No, because you’re not making any progress,” he said Wednesday during a trip to Buffalo. “So there’s nothing to slow. My point is the exact opposite – let’s do something.”
State officials acknowledge the New York delegation’s October vote, but they also say they were increasingly disappointed in the pace of development slated for the U.S. side and that expedited action was needed to compensate for years of emphasis on the Fort Erie plaza.
“The New York representatives want to immediately initiate a redesign of the Buffalo plaza to improve traffic flow, reduce pollution and route traffic around Front Park and the surrounding neighborhood instead of through it,” Lt. Gov. Robert J. Duffy recently wrote in an Another Voice piece for The Buffalo News. “They believe a plaza redesign should be fast-tracked – not at the back of the list after other Peace Bridge projects.”
“By the Peace Bridge Authority’s current plans, it will be eight years before the plaza redesign is complete,” he added. “That is unacceptable.”
A Cuomo administration official who asked not to be identified dismissed the premise that the New York caucus has changed its priorities. He said that ever since Cuomo took office, widening the plaza to accommodate a number of economic objectives has always topped his Peace Bridge list, and that Albany still supports the projects approved in October.
The problem, he said, lies in the failure of the authority to launch any planning process in conjunction with the approved projects.
“The board has not adopted any kind of process toward moving on plaza widening,” the official said.
Rienas, however, disputed the lieutenant governor’s claims that progress on the plaza will be delayed by eight years. And he pointed to a host of projects in Fort Erie – such as the relocating of tolls and authority administrative offices – as part of a history of efforts to free up space on the smaller Buffalo plaza.
Indeed, Rienas contends that the Canadian caucus has always recognized the need for the Buffalo plaza expansion, but that it can’t proceed until Washington and Ottawa determine the success or failure of a commercial pre-inspection experiment for customs, expected to begin this fall on the Fort Erie plaza.
Long sought by Cuomo and federal representatives including Sen. Charles E. Schumer and Rep. Brian Higgins, the pilot pre-inspection project will determine the feasibility of pre-clearing U.S.-bound trucks in Canada to open even more space on the Buffalo plaza.
The pilot is scheduled to be completed by early 2015. If successful, it would require the authority to construct a pre-inspection plaza costing $25 million to $30 million, since both federal governments have said they will not fund the capital costs.
Rienas contends that no physical expansion can proceed on the Buffalo plaza until success or failure of the pre-inspection experiment is determined roughly two years from now, providing an interim period to address the other projects.
That includes replacing the span’s original 1927 deck at a cost of $90 million to $100 million, he said, pointing to continuing deterioration that forced 52 days of lane closures in 2012.
“The governor wants to do everything at once; we say we can’t, because of this uncertainty,” Rienas said. “Our point is let us do what we can now and work through these pre-clearance issues.”
He added that the authority still envisions the possibility of “land banking” the Episcopal properties and Busti Avenue for development that can be seriously addressed in only two years.
But he points out that despite the state’s April 2012 promise to acquire by eminent domain the Episcopal properties and Busti Avenue for plaza expansion by June 2012, it has yet to consummate a deal.
“We share the governor’s frustration,” Rienas said. “The authority has undertaken every possible effort to move things forward.”
The administration official counters that too much is made of waiting for the outcome of the pre-inspection experiment. Contingent planning is more than possible for any outcome, he noted, based on whether customs facilities will occupy space on the plaza – and those possibilities are limited anyway.
He also noted that a similar pilot program in Blaine, Wash., is set to launch before the Peace Bridge project. The results of that effort can be assessed while planning for Buffalo proceeds, he said.
Still, following Wednesday’s preliminary action by the State Legislature to dissolve the Peace Bridge Authority, Rienas fears the board’s next scheduled meeting, on June 28, will result in no action on projects slated to begin next month.
While a vote is scheduled to proceed with the first phase of a $13 million project for widening the Buffalo approach, he predicts some board members will reject the already-approved work because of fears the bond market will not want to provide financing for a doomed authority.
In addition, he said, the priority pre-inspection project is also threatened by the possibility of being shut out of the borrowing market.
The legislation to dissolve the authority will be sent to Cuomo for his signature.
Rienas also said that with the deck project as the board’s ultimate priority, some members will likely vote against the widening project to conserve authority funding for the redecking project.
From his standpoint, the state’s claims of a slow pace will only delay progress more.
“The fact of the matter is that we are ready to award the first shovel in the ground for the approach widening,” Rienas said.
“If those things can’t proceed because of the legislation and our need to husband our resources for the bridge redecking, those projects simply won’t happen,” he said.
The Cuomo official, however, said other financing options for the projects are available outside the Peace Bridge Authority.
“There will not be Armageddon,” he said. “Regardless of the outcome of the New York State legislation, the redecking can be finalized without interfering with the other projects.”