JOHN ROBBINS/Bullet News
FORT ERIE – The Canadian Government may go to court over a move by the State of New York to unilaterally dissolve the binational agency that operates the Peace Bridge between Buffalo and Fort Erie.
That’s according to a Buffalo News article quoting Canadian Ambassador Gary Doer, who was asked about legislation passed in the New York State Assembly and Senate aimed at dissolving the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority.
The Canadian government had previously warned it does not believe the state has the right to make any such move without Canada’s consent.
The bill was passed by New York State lawmakers by a wide margin, despite Canada’s warning.
Asked if Canada is prepared to go to court if neccessary to protect its interests, Doer told The Buffalo News: “Canada will protect its sovereignty. And having said that, we prefer a co-operative approach.”
During recent months, a group of high-ranking New York State politicians have complained that Canadian members of the PBA board are obstructing progress toward building a new customs plaza on the U.S. side of the bridge.
In a letter to Howard Glaser, director of state operations for the State of New York Executive Chamber, a Transport Canada official says it’s this proposed legislation – not the perceived actions of the Canadian board members – that threatens to hold up capital improvements at the bridge.
“At this time, there is a climate of doubt that puts progress on planned capital projects at risk, due to the tabling of bills in the New York Assembly and Senate, both of which aim to amend the incorporating legislation of the PBA,” the letter reads in part.
“These deliberations on governance only serve as a distraction and compromise the ability to move ahead on approved capital projects. This is unfortunate.”
The letter then goes on to warn against taking unilateral action.
“Canada’s view is that significant amendments to the governance of the PBA cannot be made without the consent of both governments.
“The decades of successful functioning of the PBA under the existing governance structure are proof that it works. Canada is committed to the current governance structure and understands that your administration also wants to make the current structure work.”
Read the full letter from Transport Canada by clicking HERE.
Asked to comment on Doer’s remarks as reported by the Buffalo News, a Transport Canada official reiterated the government’s position.
“The Peace Bridge supports the economies of both of our countries and makes life better for residents of southern Ontario and Western New York,” Kelly James wrote in an email response.
“Canada’s position is clear that significant amendments to the governance of the Peace Bridge Authority cannot be made unilaterally.”
In April, two U.S. politicians from different political stripes teamed up to draft legislation aimed at dissolving the PBA.
About the same time New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo called for the removal of the bridge authority’s Canadian general manager.
New York State Senator Mark Grisanti, a Republican, and New York State Assemblyman Sean Ryan, a Democrat, allege a lack of co-operation from Canadian members of the PBA board, which has made it clear the board “is no longer a functioning body.”
“Public Authorities are too often arrogant, unaccountable and lack transparency,” Grisanti said in a statement announcing plans for the new legislation.
“The PBA is all of the above and it is time that we shut down this dysfunctional authority. The people of Western New York deserve better.”
The Peace Bridge, which connects Fort Erie on the Canadian side with Buffalo, N.Y. on the American side of the Niagara River, was completed in 1927.
The PBA was established to maintain and administer operations of the bridge for the public benefit of both communities.
The PBA is administered by a 10-member board, with an equal representation of Canadian and U.S. members.
Two of the five American board members are appointed by the governor of New York State.
The remaining three members are appointed by the New York State Department of Transportation commissioner, the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority chairman and the New York State Attorney General.
The Canadian board members are appointed by the Government of Canada.
There have been on-again, off-again plans to expand the Peace Bridge for 25 years.
A plan to twin the existing span was killed by a lawsuit filed in a U.S. court over conerns about the environmental permitting process on the American side.
Almost another decade was spent looking at other options for building a new bridge, before the PBA eventually settled on the concept of improving traffic flow on the existing bridge by building a new customs plaza on the U.S. side of the river and establishing commercial-vehicle pre-clearance operations on the Canadian side.
Another U.S. politician, Republican Senator George Maziarz, added his support to calls for a dissolution of the PBA supports, claiming a “lack of co-operation and respect” from Canadian members.
“I am extremely concerned over the current situation at the PBA,” said Maziarz.
“New York State, under the leadership of Governor Cuomo has shown its dedication to improving the U.S. plaza of the Peace Bridge.”
Maziarz continued: “The lack of co-operation and respect from the Canadian members is very disappointing, especially considering the continued support by the U.S. of the Canadian projects over the years. Action needs to be taken in order to allow for U.S. progress to continue.
“The inability of the general manager to provide a functioning board nor one that adequately and fairly represents all members of interest is of great concern. Therefore, I join my colleagues in calling for the dissolution of the PBA. The Peace Bridge greets tens of thousands of visitors each year and the state is and will continue to do everything it can to ensure all are greeted with the best possible facilities and service.”
During an interview with Bullet News around the same time, PBA Chairman Anthony Annunziata, a Niagara Falls, ON. hotel executive, expressed frustration at the current situation.
Annunziata refuted any suggestion that Canadian board members are somehow trying to impede progress, noting virtually all of the votes of the authority’s members during the past year have been unanimous.
Fort Erie Mayor Doug Martin called the stance being taken by some American politicians as “unneccesary and unproductive.”
Martin, who served on the PBA board back in the 1990s, says there are people on this side of the border who believe there would have been a new bridge by now had it not been political wrangling in Buffalo and Albany.
“If it had not been for interference on the U.S. side, a new bridge would have been built by now,” Martin said.
Martin said all sides need to keep their eye on a more important objective and that is making the Fort Erie-Buffalo corridor competitive in terms of trade.
That should be incentive for politicians on both sides of the border to settle the dispute quickly and amicably, he added.
“We’re in competition with other border crossings,” said Martin. “I think they should be doing everything they can to protect our market share.”
Meanwhile, the Ontario Trucking Association is decrying the legislation, saying New York has “as much to lose” as Canada unless another way of settling differences can be found.
“Dissolving the Peace Bridge Authority seems to be an extreme way of resolving differences,” said David Bradley, president of the Ontario Trucking Association.
“Did anyone tell these people the War of 1812 is over?”
“New York has as much to lose in this as Ontario and Canada,” he said. “We can only hope that cooler heads prevail and the Peace Bridge board of directors resolve their differences and get back to doing their job.”
The Peace Bridge serves as a major crossing for commercial vehicles and is one of North America’s busiest portals for international travel and trade, generating $40 billion in trade every year.
In 2012, nearly 1.3 million trucks crossed the Peace Bridge, according to the OTA.
* * * *
Stay up-to-date. Click HERE to sign up for daily email alerts. It’s free, why not try it?
TODAY’S BULLET NEWS DEAL: $100 in Whisky Run Golf Gift Certificates for only $50. Click HERE.