Trucks and cars are crossing the Niagara River between Buffalo and Fort Erie, Ont., today, just as they have since Vice President Charles Dawes and Edward, the prince of Wales, snipped the ribbon on the new international span back in 1927.
On that day, it seemed like a good idea to hang a “Peace Bridge” label on what remains one of the busiest and most vital international border crossings in the world.
Since then, the Peace Bridge stands as a massive physical symbol of a special relationship between two neighbors. But in recent months – ever since Gov. Andrew Cuomo demanded more development on the span’s Buffalo plaza – the Peace Bridge assumed a new symbolism.
Now it reflects the inability of two national delegations to amicably run a bridge, let alone represent international peace. Last week, it even served as punch line for a plethora of Peace Bridge jokes at Albany’s annual Legislative Correspondents Association show.
So sometimes it proves useful to review history for perspective; for an understanding of how and why we got to where we are.
Two Americans – Ray Gallagher and Dan Tauriello – and one Canadian – Joan Marie Brunt – are able to view the current spat from a special standpoint. All served as chairman of the Peace Bridge Authority in the 1980s. All presided over the binational panel in happier days. And all are saddened and perplexed by the current hostilities.
Still, even these former “diplomats” reflect the essence of the dispute.
“He’s 100 percent right,” Gallagher said of Cuomo’s hard-charging approach. “In Fort Erie, the bridge is the biggest job producer in the community. It’s always been favorable to the Canadian side.”
A former county legislator, state senator and chairman of the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, Gallagher is now a Conservative Party honcho. So he understands that Cuomo will prove a successful pol only if he proves a successful governor.
“The Canadians, in my estimation, don’t want us to be competitive on the American side,” he said. “They want to maintain as much revenue as possible on the Canadian side. Any expansion on the American side seems to be a threat to their economy.”
He commends the governor for uniting the New York caucus to the authority for a purpose, ending their days as “free agents.”
Then there’s Brunt, a retired Fort Erie real estate broker. She expresses great admiration for former Gov. Mario Cuomo, the current governor’s father, who once visited the bridge. But she considers the approach of Cuomo the Younger to be “rather silly.”
“Andrew Cuomo should stay out of it,” she said, recalling that the five Canadians and five Americans comprising the authority in her day peacefully and quietly hashed out their problems.
“I was a Conservative, with a big C, and they were all Democrats,” she said. “But we talked it over for what was good for the bridge. And that’s what it’s all about.”
Tauriello seems the most saddened by the new turn of events. A retired detective sergeant in the Buffalo Police Department and brigadier general in the National Guard, the West Side native recalls the authority members working together as “friends.”
“We never had any angry words,” he said. “Everything we did was for the good of the bridge.
“This pointing of fingers is ridiculous,” he added. “You’ve got to sit down and talk and keep politics out of it.”
Politics, it seems, is never far from anything around these parts. After Wednesday’s vote in the State Legislature to take steps to dissolve the Peace Bridge Authority, it’s crystal clear that politics remains very much a part of the situation.
Governors like Andrew Cuomo are elected to energize stalled projects like the Peace Bridge plaza. Legislators like Assemblyman Robin Schimminger are elected to express their own opinions – as he did Wednesday in opposing dissolution of the authority.
That’s why politics – in good and bad senses of the word – will continue to dominate the Peace Bridge saga. It’s a good bet we may even devote another Politics Column on another Sunday to the politics of the Peace Bridge.