Andrew Cuomo, the charismatic political star many expect to eventually run for president, fired the opening shots in what is turning into a messy border skirmish soon after he moved into the New York’s governor’s mansion two years ago.
Out went the five former U.S. members of the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority – known as the Peace Bridge Authority – the binational agency that runs the busy spans linking Fort Erie, Ont., and Buffalo, N.Y. In their place, five Cuomo loyalists.
But unlike state-run agencies, the Peace Bridge Authority also has five Canadian appointees, who, in the view from the New York Governor’s bunker, were thwarting progress. “Years of foot-dragging” is how one of the Governor’s top aides characterized the Canadians. “Progress is in jeopardy due to the lack of co-operation from the Canadian members,” said the letter to Canada’s Transport Minister Denis Lebel.
Last week Mr. Cuomo fired another salvo, asserting delays in redeveloping the Buffalo side of the Peace Bridge “is a metaphor to me for the overall failure of economic development” for the entire upstate region, suggesting that Canadian intransigence was blocking efforts to revitalize Buffalo.
“Everyone should ask themselves how this has happened for 20 years,” he told The Buffalo News, which has chronicled the unfolding – and increasingly acrimonious – dispute between the Canadian and Americans on the agency.
Mr. Lebel has opted to stay out of the fray, saying only that Canada is committed to continuing with the collaborative business model for operating the bridge.
“The Peace Bridge supports the economies of both of our countries, and makes life better for residents of Southern Ontario and western New York,” he said on Tuesday. “The Peace Bridge Authority, with its binational board of directors, has worked well for decades.”
But Mr. Cuomo’s political agenda isn’t about the bridge, or plans to re-deck it, or even the project – now under way – to move inspection of U.S.-bound trucks to the Canadian side of the river where, for the first time ever, Ottawa agreed to let U.S. officers wear firearms. Rather, it’s about the broader and contentious plans to rebuild a whole chunk of Buffalo that will be affected by sweeping changes to the bridge approaches and plaza that houses the American border control.
Not since the Battle of Queenston Heights – the first major clash of the War of 1812, when the Canadian militia, Mohawks loyal to the Crown and British troops handily defeated invading Americans – has the Niagara River seen such fireworks.
Accusations and insults have been lobbed from both sides. Sam Hoyt, the Cuomo representative who is the bridge authority’s vice-chairman, has accused the bridge’s Canadian general manager of nepotism.
Anthony Annunziata, the authority’s Canadian chairman, once introduced an American woman who was the bridge project manager as “the governor’s concubine” because she appeared to be following Mr. Cuomo’s orders. Mr. Annunziata has since apologized, both in person and in writing, and undergone sensitivity training.
But he told The Globe and Mail on Tuesday that the U.S. response to the issue has been impossible to comprehend. “I was absolutely shocked at the administration’s approach and aggressiveness of the Governor’s office, which was political rather than based on a business argument,” he said.
In fact, the Canadians say the delays in the upgrade of the bridge and the plaza – which is the second-busiest land border crossing between the two countries and handles about $40-billion in commercial trade and 4.77 million drivers a year – are of U.S. making.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has determined that the American plaza is inadequate and both sides recognized long ago that it must be improved. But the Americans were also set on expansion and plans were drawn for a new $700-million span, about $300-million of which would have been used to rebuild the American port of entry.
That required an environmental assessment led by the New York State Department of Transportation. So all major work on the bridge was put on hold for 11 years while that study was completed.
Then, in early 2012, the U.S. government said it didn’t have the money to do the big job. The assessment process was ended and the bridge authority decided it was time to press ahead on more modest upgrades. The American plaza would be reconstructed at a cost of about $50-million, using its existing footprint, and the bridge would be re-decked for about $100-million, a project that was becoming more urgent as time passed.
But Mr. Cuomo was determined to acquire more land and increase the size of the American facility. The Governor announced last August that he had negotiated the transfer of two blocks of a Buffalo street that is adjacent to the plaza – something that appears to have been more aspirational than fact.
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