FORT ERIE, Ont. – As the Peace Bridge Authority quietly named Sam Hoyt its chairman on Friday, it was a far different situation from the same time last year.
That’s when Hoyt and his New York colleagues boycotted the panel that runs the Peace Bridge as Canadians objected to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s plans for developing the Buffalo plaza. Then just a few months later, Cuomo’s allies in the State Legislature even introduced legislation to dissolve the authority after more than 80 years of binational governance.
But the handshakes and mutual praises pervading Friday’s meeting may mask real tensions still rippling beneath the surface. As outgoing Chairman Anthony M. Annunziata, a Canadian, passed the gavel to Hoyt, he issued a subtle reminder of the rocky year just completed and the need to cooperate in projects like the $9.7 million widening of the Buffalo approach given final approval on Friday.
“It’s been a challenging year, and that’s an understatement, I think, because of political and economic influences,” Annunziata said. “In the face of threats of dissolution, this board has worked together unanimously in support of the capital projects before us.”
The vote to approve the newest phase of Peace Bridge improvements preceded a lengthy executive session in which sources indicated authority members revisited many of the still-festering differences stemming from Cuomo’s insistence on a faster pace of Buffalo plaza development. Some of those problems erupted into personal accusations last spring when Hoyt – head of the New York delegation to the authority – sought to fire Canadian General Manager Ron Rienas.
In turn, Canadian members sought Hoyt’s dismissal.
But the New York and Canadian members all worked hard during Friday’s session to publicly paint a harmonious picture as Hoyt succeeded Annunziata in a long-standing agreement to annually rotate leadership of the board. Canadian board member Anna Tartaglia voted against Hoyt for chairman, but would not comment on her reasons.
Last year’s New York boycott resulted in failure to form a quorum from January through March until the situation publicly boiled over in April. Neither side has since ever officially backed off on demands to replace Rienas or Hoyt.
Though Hoyt and Annunziata led their respective sides last year arguing over the pace of plaza expansion that in turn raised serious international tensions, both officially downplayed that history on Friday. Hoyt, a Cuomo appointee to the Empire State Development Corp., referred to Annunziata as “not only my colleague but my friend,” and thanked him for his leadership in “challenging times.”
“There were challenges last year and we managed to overcome them,” Hoyt said, “and we remained focused on moving these projects forward and our responsibility to those using this bridge.”
He then went on to laud Cuomo as “ambitious and focused” for recognizing the importance of the international span, as well as his commitment to its improvement. No other governor before him, Hoyt said, has placed such importance on the Peace Bridge.
Meanwhile, the board awarded the next phase of the project to widen the Buffalo approach – about $5 million out of a total of $9.7 million. Work by the Pike Co. of Rochester will follow completion of last year’s effort to excavate and build foundations and pedestals for piers supporting an addition to the bridge deck. The project, leading to a much more extensive redecking effort in 2015, will entail only minor traffic impediments this summer, according to Peace Bridge officials. But it will pave the way toward replacing the span’s original 1927 deck next year and open more space for vehicles entering the United States to fan across the Buffalo plaza.
“This widened approach will push trucks to the right and allow for better passage from Canada,” said Anthony D. Braunscheidel, the authority’s facilities manager. “As we open up that whole throat, a lot of those [traffic] conflicts will be mitigated by having additional real estate.”
Phase I also included reconfiguring the R.F. Willson building parking lot to accommodate the footprint of the widening approach.
Braunscheidel said the project also will result in new paths for pedestrians and bicycles.
The project calls for replacement of an existing bridge gantry with cantilevered gantries and additional signage. The widening project is expected to be completed in the fall.