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.
And Mr. Cuomo wanted the bridge authority to pay $4-million plus back taxes for some derelict church property that was valued at less than $2-million – a plan that was rejected by the Canadians on the authority's board.
Even if the land had been purchased, the plaza could not have been expanded without embarking on a whole new environmental assessment, Mr. Annunziata said. And that was something he was not prepared to do given that it would lead to further delays in the re-decking process.
The spat has created more than a little tension on the board of the bridge authority. "Under these circumstances, it has not been the most pleasant," said Mr. Annunziata with significant understatement.
Three Buffalo lawmakers in New York's legislature have loudly threatened to scrap the binational agency, although the legality of that strike seems questionable.
More importantly, from the point of view of the Canadian members of the board, the proposed U.S. legislation would make it impossible to remarket the bridge authority's bonds in 2014. That would mean there would be no money to upgrade the American plaza or to re-deck the bridge.
Mr. Cuomo has not publicly supported the threat to scrap the agency. Instead, he has dispatched New York's Lieutenant-Governor Robert Duffy for talks with the Canadians. "We are committed to making the current structure work and are confident that our counterparts in Canada feel the same way," Mr. Duffy said.
For his part, Mr. Annunziata said the solution is for the Governor to replace the Americans on the board with people who are better able to co-operate with the Canadians.
"I don't think that the facts that are being shared with the Governor are accurate and if they were I think he would have a different stance." he said. "But we can only rely on the people who are giving him his information. And that is the American board members. And I am on the record very clearly as saying that needs to change."
Mr. Annunziata said there is no reason for the intense international war of words. "What's odd has been the reaction from everybody else within the State of New York with the introduction of legislation," he said, "and how they've rallied to make this political issue and make it a Canada-U.S. issue when it's not a Canada-U.S. issue."
Meanwhile Mr. Cuomo tabbed former Buffalo mayor Tony Masiello, a close political ally, to fill the last vacant U.S. seat on the binational agency. For his part, Mr. Masiello has sounded a conciliatory tone. "It's not going to be easy. I think there's some challenges … we have to work on what's right for both sides of the border."
It's that pesky border – and the fact that another country is on the other side of the Niagara River – that makes life more difficult for Mr. Cuomo.
"I came in a year ago and said I'm going to rebuild the bridge now," the Governor boasted last week, referring to the $5-billion project to replace the huge Tappan Zee Bridge that spans the Hudson River. "That could all have been happening here," he said in Buffalo. "What can you learn from the Tappan Zee? You gotta get it done."
Except the New York Governor controls both sides of the Hudson at Tappan Zee.
Peace Bridge Facts
Officially dedicated in August, 1927, the Peace Bridge crosses the Niagara River, joining Buffalo, N.Y., and Fort Erie, Ont. The bridge is 1,091 metres long and has three lanes.
Peace Bridge, as its name suggests, has long been held up as a symbol of the close friendship between the United States and Canada.
It is the second-busiest Canada-U.S. border crossing, with more than 4.77 million cars in 2011. It is the third-busiest border crossing in truck traffic, with more than 1.25 million commercial vehicles in 2011.
The plan to widen the bridge's approach is expected to cost more than $10-million (U.S.) and involves construction of 215,000 square feet of extra space.
In addition to expanding the plaza on the U.S. side of the crossing, the Peace Bridge Authority is trying to agree on a $92-million proposal to refurbish the bridge.
The authority is also working on a plan to start up a $25-million customs pre-clearance pilot project for U.S.-bound trucks on the Canadian side, a component of the Beyond the Border initiatives.
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story referred to "Queen" instead of "Crown" in the 9th paragraph. Crown is more accurate. King George III was on the throne in 1812 although a regent was running the monarchy.