By CAROLYN THOMPSON
Niagara Gazette — BUFFALO — New York and Canada have agreed on a plan to hasten much-needed improvements to the American side of the Peace Bridge after Gov. Andrew Cuomo and ambassadors from both countries intervened in a stalemate that had divided the bridge's bi-national governing board along international lines.
"A bridge only works when it works on both ends. That's the metaphor for today," Cuomo said Wednesday in Buffalo, where he announced the agreement with Ambassadors Gary Doer of Canada and David Jacobson of the United States at a boathouse in view of the span, one of the busiest commercial and passenger crossings along the northern border.
New York officials have grown increasingly impatient in recent months over the pace of redevelopment of the crowded and confusing U.S. inspection plaza, where idling trucks have long led to pollution complaints from neighboring homeowners.
With the 10-member Peace Bridge Authority, comprised of five Canadian and five American members, deadlocked, the Senate and Assembly this month overwhelmingly approved a measure to dissolve the agency as Cuomo continued negotiations with Canadian officials. The legislation, which angered Canadians, would not take effect under Wednesday's agreement.
"I think it strengthened the relationship between the two countries because everybody had the same goals and priorities in mind. It was just a question of whose priorities are first," said Sen. Mark Grisanti, who proposed the bill to dissolve the Peace Bridge Authority in the Senate.
The new agreement maps out $140 million in projects to be undertaken simultaneously, beginning in July with a traffic study with an eye toward widening the plaza. It also calls for preparation to begin immediately for a pilot program that would allow for primary inspection of U.S.-bound freight trucks to take place on the Canadian side and accelerates plans to reconfigure traffic flow coming in and out of the plaza.
The Peace Bridge Authority is expected to consider the plan at its next regular meeting Friday. Spokesman Matthew Davison said the board would have no comment Wednesday.
"The certainty allows for decisions to be made, financial decisions based on capital requirements at this bridge," Doer said. "It is a partnership. We prefer partnership over litigation."
The agreement requires the state's Empire State Development Corp. to acquire a vacant building and a street adjacent to the plaza for the creation of a neighborhood buffer.
"Our attitude was enough is enough. It has to be resolved one way or the other," Cuomo said. "That was the point of the drama of the discussion. One way or the other, we need a resolution because this is just not OK anymore."
The Peace Bridge ranks second in passenger traffic and third in commercial truck traffic among all northern border crossings, handling about 6 million vehicles each year. An estimated $40 billion in trade crosses the span annually, a number threatened by frequent backups of tractor-trailers waiting to get into the United States.
After plans to build a new bridge were abandoned after years of debate, the focus shifted in January to more immediate improvements to the U.S. plaza.