High-level talks involving officials from Albany, Washington and Ottawa continue this week with an aim toward a Peace Bridge agreement – perhaps as soon as Friday – that will allow progress on Canadian priorities as well as a new traffic study on the U.S. plaza.
The traffic study, which eventually could lead to expansion of the Buffalo plaza, is now viewed as the key to New York State objectives and could offer a way out for all parties embroiled in a months-long international dispute over the pace of development on the U.S. side, according to Rep. Brian Higgins and several informed sources on both sides who asked not to be identified.
Following weekend meetings in Manhattan involving Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Ambassadors Gary Doer of Canada and David Jacobson of the U.S., the sources say all parties continue to build on progress and seek an agreement before Friday’s next scheduled meeting of the fractured Peace Bridge Authority.
Higgins, D-Buffalo, who has assumed a key role in brokering peace, said Tuesday that the personal involvement of the governor and two ambassadors has “kicked up” the level of discussions in a way that provides optimism for an agreement.
“There are still some issues that need to be resolved,” he said. “But the right people are in the room.”
But even if that goal is not attained, sources say Cuomo wants a new effort to begin planning for eventual plaza expansion in Buffalo while approximately $50 million in projects already unanimously approved by the authority proceed.
Assemblyman Sean M. Ryan, D-Buffalo, who has also assumed a visible legislative role in the ongoing dispute, said the traffic study now figures as an important part of the negotiations. He also said attaining an agreement before the Friday meeting remains desirable but does not present any kind of deadline.
“The goal is a comprehensive plan,” he said. “We have to do a traffic study.”
The word “simultaneous” has emerged as key to the talks, since New York officials fear that exclusive concentration on other projects could further delay plaza expansion.
“The rhetoric has changed,” the source said. “People are talking.”
Higgins defended Cuomo’s hard-charging approach to attaining progress on a Buffalo plaza long perceived as a symbol of inaction, noting that several of his predecessors have come nowhere near gaining at least some results. And key to the effort, he said, is an environmental review process that would allow U.S. planners to prepare for several alternative approaches while other projects proceed.
“The governor wants to look at a plan for the existing American footprint that may include reorganization of American facilities,” he said, with an eye toward improving traffic flow and easing congestion.
“It’s not important how you get attention, it’s what you do with the attention,” he added.
Higgins noted that a “comprehensive” settlement that includes governance of the international span still needs approval by both sides. Ryan also has addressed that issue, questioning whether the authority needs to build massive reserves for its construction projects.
While Ryan noted an agreement before Friday is not essential, others said Cuomo would like to announce an end to the dispute in Buffalo soon in the same manner as his recent truce with the Seneca Nation of Indians over its gambling compact.
The Friday meeting also assumes significance because the Peace Bridge Authority agenda includes awarding a $13 million contract to widen the span’s Buffalo approach. Canadian officials of the authority, meanwhile, continue to insist that with Ryan’s bill to dissolve the authority passed last week by the State Legislature and awaiting Cuomo’s signature, uncertainty clouds the future and most likely will cause the panel to delay a vote on the contract and the widening project – unless an agreement is reached.
Still, Higgins reiterated that the elevation of the talks to top levels has helped the situation.
“The Peace Bridge Authority is not hesitant in its responsibility to finance further American improvements,” he said. “The question is what is the right procedure.”
A Cuomo spokesman declined to comment, citing ongoing negotiations.
Canadian officials used diplomatic language in response to questions about negotiations, a further sign that both sides are toning down the rhetoric that created sharp tensions in recent weeks.
Kelly James, a spokeswoman for Transport Canada in Ottawa, citing last weekend’s high-level meeting in New York City, said, “A respectful, fact-based dialogue is the best way to ensure the smooth functioning of an institution that has served our two countries for almost a century.’’
But she made clear that Canada has no interest in seeing the governor sign the legislation to dissolve the Peace Bridge Authority, a move Canadians said could lead to court challenges. “The government of Canada welcomes these contacts and believes that it is in all parties’ interests to support effective functioning of the existing governance structures and move forward with targeted capital investments,’’ she said.
News Albany Bureau Chief Tom Precious contributed to this report. email: firstname.lastname@example.org