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Canada, U.S. fail to settle spat over Peace Bridge

Pedestrians walk on a path in front of the international Peace Bridge in Buffalo, N.Y.,in this May 3, 2003, file photo.

DAVID DUPREY/AP

A pact to end the unseemly political clash that threatens to turn the Peace Bridge, the second-busiest crossing between the United States and Canada, into full-blown border dispute may emerge in the next few days.

"We're making progress," Canada's Ambassador Gary Doer said Sunday after a long face-to-face meeting on Saturday with New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. Talks between U.S. and Canadian officials continued Sunday.

"It's very constructive, very comprehensive," Mr. Doer said of the ongoing negotiations.

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After months of threats and inflammatory accusations, significant progress was finally being made on sorting out both the financing and the sequence of redevelopment intended to increase and smooth two-way flows across the span linking the two countries.

But no new pact had been reached by the end of the weekend.

"We all want the same thing," Mr. Doer said. "We want to reduce congestion" and "improve trade and travel."

New York state and Canadian officials are expected to continue to hammer out details of an emerging deal over the coming days. But ending the bitter feud, replete with name-calling and accusations of deliberate stalling, may take far longer.

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 a piece of legislation that would seek to dissolve the Peace Bridge Authority, the binational agency that governs the 86-year old bridge. Canada has maintained that the legislation is on shaky legal footing and promised to challenge it in court.

Both sides moderated their rhetoric on Saturday, emphasizing their common interests.

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

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.

On Saturday, Gov. Cuomo sounded a conciliatory tone. "The track we're on now is to come up with an agreement that resolves the issues," he said.

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 the 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.

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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 plan and execute an expansion of the U.S. 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 changes at the bridge have taken too long 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 the meeting were John Prato, Canada's Consul General in New York, and David Jacobson, the U.S. ambassador to Canada.

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About the Authors
International Affairs and Security Correspondent

Paul More

U.S. Correspondent

Joanna Slater is an award-winning foreign correspondent for The Globe based in the United States, where her focus is business and economic news and New York City.Her career includes reporting assignments in the U.S., Europe and Asia. In 2015, she was posted in Berlin, Germany, where she covered Europe’s refugee crisis. More

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