NEW YORK – Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and the Canadian ambassador to the U.S. emerged from a six-hour meeting here Saturday without a deal on the future of the Peace Bridge, but with confidence that they were moving toward an agreement.
Asked if he would sign a bill passed recently by the State Legislature that could disband the Peace Bridge Authority, Cuomo said: “The track we are on now is to come up with an agreement that resolves the issues. We also have to do it in consultation with the members of the board of the Peace Bridge Authority, who have a legal responsibility and have been working on these issues for a long time. I believe we’re going to come to a mutually acceptable agreement, because we have the same goals.”
The Canadian ambassador, Gary Doer, agreed.
“There’s absolute complete agreement that it’s better to have hard hats than lawyers,” said Doer, reflecting what he said several days earlier in an interview with The Buffalo News, when he indicated Canada was prepared to go to court if Cuomo signed the bill dissolving the Peace Bridge Authority.
The meeting came a day after sources told The News that the two sides were nearing agreement on a plan that could lead to $150 million to $180 million in construction at the Peace Bridge in the next few years, with many millions more possible in the future, depending on the results of an environmental impact study.
Neither Cuomo nor Doer addressed any of those details in a brief discussion with reporters after their meeting, but no one on either side disputed those details, either.
The meeting took so long because Cuomo and Doer – along with David Jacobson, the U.S. ambassador to Canada, and John Prato, the Canadian consul general – went through the history of the 20-year stalemate over Peace Bridge construction, as well as a long list of possible projects at the span.
“There were a lot of issues that needed to be addressed for a long time,” Cuomo said. “Many of these issues are not current issues; these go back a long time, the lack of progress.”
Doer, meanwhile, said it was a very detail-oriented meeting.
“We had six hours of going through everything,” Doer said.
Neither Cuomo nor Doer would indicate how close the two sides were to an agreement, saying, instead, that aides to the governor and Prato will continue discussions in the coming week.
“We want to make sure we address all the relevant questions so we actually accomplish something,” Cuomo said. “One of the problems with the Peace Bridge is that the can has been kicked down the road for too long, and no one has done for a long time what we’re now doing, which is sit down at the table, find the tough issues, work through the tough issues so you actually accomplish something.”
Doer said the two sides are working to make sure nothing gets forgotten as they work toward an agreement.
“We went through every full and frank issue to make sure that we knew where we agreed and where there’s some work to do,” Doer said. “And there is some work to do.”
In particular, “some of the financing issues are more complicated than they might appear on the surface,” Doer said.
One of the things that may not be as complicated as the Legislature tried to make it, though, is the future of the Peace Bridge Authority.
Asked if he foresaw any changes to the authority’s structure, Cuomo said: “I don’t think it’s about the structure. I think it’s about what [the authority] does and what the plan is and how committed the partners are to making it happen.”
To that end, much of the discussion centered upon particular projects to improve the bridge – though neither Cuomo nor Doer would specify what projects they discussed.
“We talked a lot about the capital projects that can be looked at by the board of directors of the bridge,” Doer said. “We looked at some of the legal issues that are contained. We looked at the funding issues and tried to develop a framework that could be informing to the board.”
According to a term sheet of the prospective deal, which a source read to The News, that $150 million in projects includes $55 million in short-term improvements to the American side of the bridge that the authority approved last fall. Those projects include a new approach to the bridge, a connecting ramp and a new customs house.
But the prospective deal also includes a $92 million redecking of the bridge, as well as an environmental study that would look at moving some facilities that are currently on the American plaza – such as the duty-free facility, perhaps – elsewhere on the plaza or to nearby land.
While avoiding specifics, Cuomo and Doer struck a decidedly different tone than the one that has defined the months-long battle over the Peace Bridge, which has featured Cuomo aides trying to get the board to fire the authority’s Canadian general manager and Doer saying of Cuomo just last week: “He’s talking about lawyers already. He talked about lawyers this weekend. We’re responding in kind.”
Saturday, though, the governor and the ambassador smiled, laughed and pledged allegiance to a process that, they said, would lead to less congestion on the Peace Bridge.
“I wanted Canada to know they have a fully engaged partner on the New York side – which, I think, for some years past they haven’t had,” Cuomo said.
For his part, Doer said: “We obviously had a great opportunity to meet together. … We just wanted to ensure that everybody is on the same page.”
But that doesn’t mean the great reality hovering over the Peace Bridge for two decades – delay after delay after delay – changed in an instant in the governor’s 38th-floor office suite on Manhattan’s East Side.
Asked if it might be possible for the two sides to reach an agreement before the Peace Bridge Authority board meeting next Friday, Cuomo said a delay of a few days would not really matter.
“Getting it done right is important,” Cuomo said, so that “what happened for the last 20 years doesn’t happen again. Let’s do it right rather than beat the clock.”