Lt. Gov. Robert J. Duffy on Wednesday helped break ground on a $1.5 million construction project aimed at widening the approach to the Peace Bridge plaza from Canada, thereby relieving traffic congestion and potentially reducing fuel emissions from idling trucks.

The project is part of a series of infrastructure improvements that are planned for the Buffalo side of the 86-year-old span that links the U.S. and Canada.

“It’s a team effort,” said Duffy, who attended the groundbreaking on behalf of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

“It’s really all about making a greater connection and really opening up what you see behind us with the vehicles and trucks and opening up commerce between these two great countries,” added Duffy.

The lieutenant governor said the construction project, which is being done by Oakgrove Construction, is the first phase of an overall $12 million plan scheduled for completion in fall 2014.

“This first phase is to widen the throat, and the contractor that is doing the work right now is actually putting in the foundation so that the steel work can start in January, instead of waiting for the spring thaw,” said Maria Lehman, the state’s program manager for the Peace Bridge.

The overall project will include an additional 215,000 square feet of approach space for U.S.-bound vehicles, through a 500-by-60-foot reinforced steel structure and concrete deck addition. The aim is to speed up the flow of traffic from Canada into the U.S. by providing better access to NEXUS lanes.

“It’s the same thing like the E-ZPass lanes” at the Williamsville toll barrier, said Lehman. “If you can’t get to E-ZPass, you can’t use it. So we want to do that with NEXUS here.”

Lehman said the improvements will add at least three extra truck lanes while also increasing queuing space for passenger vehicles during special events and busy times on the bridge.

“I wouldn’t want to say that the first phase is going to solve all the issues, but this is a big step in the right direction,” said Duffy.

An agreement to move forward with improvements at the U.S. toll plaza was reached in late June, about a month after the Cuomo administration wrote Canada’s transport minister, blaming Canadians on the Peace Bridge Authority for construction delays on the Buffalo side. The administration called on the Canadians to replace the authority’s general manager, Ron Reinas, who is Canadian. The governor even threatened to sign off on legislation that was passed by the State Legislature, calling for the dissolution of the Peace Bridge Authority, before announcing an agreement that outlines between $150 million to $180 million in construction projects at the Peace Bridge over the next few years.

Included are $55 million in short-term improvements to the U.S. side of the bridge that were approved by the authority last fall. Planned improvements on the American side include a new customs house and new connecting ramps to the Peace Bridge.

Joining Duffy for Wednesday’s groundbreaking were Peace Bridge Authority Vice Chairman Sam Hoyt; Canadian member Rocco Vacca; State Sen. Mark Grisanti; Assembly members Crystal Peoples-Stokes, Sean Ryan, John Ceretto and Tim Kennedy; and Buffalo Common Member David Rivera.