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Traffic works it's way up the Peace Bridge on the Fort Erie Ontario side on it's way to Buffalo, New York on October 17, 2011. The traffic is light on the day. (Glenn Lowson For The Globe and Mail)
Traffic works it's way up the Peace Bridge on the Fort Erie Ontario side on it's way to Buffalo, New York on October 17, 2011. The traffic is light on the day. (Glenn Lowson For The Globe and Mail)

NY Governor and Cdn. ambassador fail to resolve Peace Bridge dispute Add to ...

A high-level meeting in Manhattan failed to resolve an escalating feud over the management of the Peace Bridge, the second-busiest border crossing between the United States and Canada.

For more than five hours on Saturday, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo met with Gary Doer, Canada’s ambassador to the United States, to discuss ways to end the growing tension over spending priorities at the 86-year old bridge.

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In recent months, the bridge with the pacifist name has become the centre of an unusual war of words. New York state officials have accused Canada of impeding long-delayed improvements to the American side of the span, something Ottawa has firmly denied.

In retaliation, New York lawmakers earlier this month passed legislation that would seek to dissolve the Peace Bridge Authority, the binational agency that governs the bridge. Canada has maintained that the legislation is on shaky legal footing and promised to challenge it in court.

Both sides attempted to moderate the rhetoric on Saturday, pledging to continue discussions and emphasizing their common interests.

“We all want the same thing,” said Mr. Cuomo after the meeting. “We want a bridge that works for everyone.”

Mr. Doer echoed that sentiment, but said that gaps remain. “We had a very productive day,” he said. “We still have some work to do.”

The lack of agreement means that $50 million (U.S.) in already approved projects to improve the American approach to the bridge are in limbo.

It also means that the future of the agency that oversees the bridge – which connects Buffalo, N.Y. and Fort Erie, Ont. – remains in question.

While New York lawmakers have passed legislation that could disband the agency, Mr. Cuomo has not yet signed the bill into law.

Asked on Saturday whether he would do so, he struck a conciliatory tone. “The track we’re on now is to come up with an agreement that resolves the issues.”

A political star in the Democratic Party who has bent New York’s legislature to his will, Mr. Cuomo is known for his combative style and possible presidential aspirations. Modernizing access to the bridge on the Buffalo side is a priority of his administration – and he is not afraid to make enemies in the process.

A recent cartoon is a reflection of the deteriorating situation. In Friday’s Buffalo News, a drawing depicted a chess game between Mr. Cuomo and a Canadian official. Dressed as a three-star general, Mr. Cuomo is shown pushing tanks, instead of rooks and pawns, across the board toward his alarmed-looking adversary.

On Saturday, there was friendly banter between Mr. Cuomo and Mr. Doer but no agreement. “We wanted to have a big look at all the issues,” Mr. Doer said. “Some of the financing issues are more complicated than what might appear on the surface.”

One flashpoint: a unilateral move by the Cuomo administration to expand the U.S. border crossing plaza. It demanded $95-million for the project from the Peace Bridge Authority, which already had $50-million of its own improvements to the American side planned, said sources with knowledge of the proceedings.

Mr. Cuomo said progress at the bridge has been too slow and he intends to achieve results. “One of the problems with the Peace Bridge is that the can has been kicked down the road for too long,” he said.

Canada has said that any previous delays in improving the American side were in fact a U.S. problem, caused by a lengthy environmental assessment process by U.S. federal officials that was finally abandoned.

Also present at Saturday’s meeting were John Prato, Canada’s Consul-General in New York, and David Jacobson, the U.S. ambassador to Canada.

Both Mr. Cuomo and Mr. Doer said on Saturday that they intended to consult with the board of the Peace Bridge Authority, which has five Canadian members and five American members, before moving forward.

Since late last year, as tensions have spiked, the board has descended into a state of deadlock and distrust, with allegations of impropriety from the two sides.

Sam Hoyt, the board’s vice-chairman and an ally of Mr. Cuomo’s, has described his Canadian counterparts as “duplicitous” and “deceitful.”

The Canadian chairman of the board, Anthony Annunziata, in turn referred to Mr. Hoyt as “destructive” and “disruptive.” Mr. Annunziata also once called a female American project manager “the governor’s concubine,” referring to her willingness to grant Mr. Cuomo’s requests (he has since apologized and taken part in sensitivity training).

The board that oversees the bridge is next scheduled to meet on June 28.

Arthur Giacalone, a Buffalo attorney who has been a strident critic of Mr. Cuomo's tactics, welcomed the failure to hammer out a deal.

Mr. Giacalone said the Governor’s efforts to fast-track the redevelopment of the Buffalo side of the bridge will increase traffic and that poses a threat “to the health and well being of those live near the Peace Bridge.” Until there’s a full environmental study, nothing should proceed, he said.

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