Numbers, history belie Cuomo’s Peace Bridge claims

Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his minions are insisting long and loud that Canadian members of the authority that manages the Peace Bridge have shortchanged efforts to improve the American side of the bridge.

But an analysis by Investigative Post found that nearly half of the $192.5 million spent or committed by the authority’s governing board since 1992 has been earmarked for work on the American side.

What’s more, more funding has been committed to improve the plaza in Buffalo than in Fort Erie since the 9/11 terrorist attacks when projects on the books are factored in.

Investigative Post also found that much of the money spent on the Canadian side since the 1990s addressed problems on the American side. The projects were built in Fort Erie because the Public Bridge Authority didn’t own enough land on the U.S. side to accommodate facilities deemed necessary to improve traffic flow and homeland security operations after the 9/11 attacks.

The authority owns about 70 acres in Fort Erie but only 18.3 acres in Buffalo. While the authority wanted to acquire more land in Buffalo to expand the bridge plaza there, it was prohibited from building outside what it already owned until environmental studies were completed to assess the impact of a proposal to build a new bridge. Those studies began in 1995 and didn’t conclude until January 2012.

The authority thus faced a choice: make changes deemed necessary to improve traffic flow and accommodate growing homeland security operations by building facilities in Canada or hold off until the environmental studies were complete.

The authority’s governing board – half American, half Canadian – agree to proceed with work in Fort Erie.

As a result, toll booths were relocated from the U.S. to Canadian side, allowing for the addition of inspection booths on the Buffalo side. The authority’s administrative offices were relocated to Fort Erie to free up space in Buffalo for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection. A facility to process Buffalo-bound trucks was built in Fort Erie.

“We spent the money in Canada to solve the problems on the U.S. side because we had the land there,” said Ron Rienas, the authority’s general manager.

Spending in Fort Erie also benefitted Canadian interests.

A Duty Free store, the largest on the U.S.-Canada border, was built. New quarters were constructed for the Canada Border Services Agency. A truck processing center for Canadian-bound vehicles was built.

Data provided by the Public Bridge Authority shows spending since 1992 is equally divided between Canada and the United States on projects, land purchases and environmental studies, including work approved by the board last year that’s slated for completion by the end of 2015.

Spending totals $96.7 on the Canadian side and $95.8 million for the United States from 1992 through 2015. About $23.4 million of the spending on the U.S. side went toward environmental studies that considered the impact of a new bridge and an expanded plaza. Those plans have been scuttled.

Rienas said about $65 million of $97 million spent in Canada financed projects that addressed U.S. concerns in part or whole.

An analysis of spending commitments since the 9/11 attacks shows a greater investment in the U.S. side of the border – $66.3 million vs. $53.5 million, and that factors out more than $20 million spent on environmental studies. Most of the U.S. investment was approved last fall, when the authority board agreed to $51.3 million in work on projects now in the planning stage.

In addition, the authority has approved planning funds to study construction of a facility to inspect U.S.-bound trucks in Fort Erie. American and Canadian officials have a tentative agreement for a pilot program to inspect most trucks in Fort Erie to reduce bridge congestion. If the inspections plan goes forward, a facility would be built for $25 million to $30 million.

Despite the history, the Cuomo administration has chastised Canadian officials for what they claim is an unwillingness to spend sufficient funds to upgrade the U.S. side of the bridge.

Howard Glaser, a top Cuomo adviser, complained of “foot dragging” by Canadian officials in an April 25 letter to the Canadian minister of transport. He chastised Canadian members of the authority board for a “lack of cooperation” in making improvements to the American side of the bridge.

More recently,  Lieutenant Governor Robert Duffy declared in a letter to the editor published in The Buffalo News that “improvements have languished for decades while Buffalo loses wealth and population and the Canadian side has boomed.”

Cuomo, in remarks last week to The News, described the Peace Bridge as a “metaphor for dysfunction” over the past 20 years.

That prompted Anthony Annunziata, a Canadian who serves as authority chairman, to characterize the governor’s comments as “incredibly arrogant and insulting.”  Annunziata previously dismissed U.S. criticism over authority spending as “absolutely absurd.”

Rienas said U.S. claims that they’re being shortchanged are “simply not true.”

There’s no disputing the plaza on the Canadian side of the bridge is more modern and spacious thanks to capital improvements and land acquisitions made over the past 20 years.

That plaza boasts 15 car and five truck inspection booths; a truck processing facility; a bridge maintenance facility; and four administration buildings that house authority offices, Canada Border Services Agency, a refugee processing center and an enrollment center for the NEXUS and FAST programs.

By contrast, the plaza on the U.S. side has 18 inspection booths, five of which can be used to process trucks, as well as cars; a circa 1950 administration building used by U.S. Customs and Border Protection; a Duty Free store; and a truck inspection facility.

Work approved by the authority last October earmarked $25.6 million for the renovation of the truck facility, $12.9 million to widen of the U.S. side of the bridge where it feeds traffic into the plaza, and $12.4 million for other roadwork. The latter project has subsequently been shelved in favor of other road work proposed by the state, although Rienas said the authority is willing to underwrite a portion of the cost.

Authority officials last week said they intend to put all the approved work on hold because of uncertainty created by the introduction of bills by lawmakers with ties to Cuomo in the New York Legislature to dissolve the authority. Annunziata said the authority can’t bank on selling bonds to pay for the work and must use its reserves to pay for essential construction, including a redecking of the bridge that’s scheduled for 2015.

The Cuomo administration is pushing for a $120 million project to expand the U.S. plaza and alter traffic patterns for vehicles heading to and from the bridge. State officials and Canadian members of the authority board differ on the scope and timing of plaza improvements and those differences are at the heart of the dispute.