Cuomo’s failed huffing and puffing on Peace Bridge

Reporting, analysis and commentary
by Jim Heaney, editor of Investigative Post

First Gov. Andrew Cuomo huffed.

In October, he had his emissaries tell the Public Bridge Authority he wanted it to turn over control – along with $95 million – to New York State to redevelop the U.S. side of the bridge plaza.

When that didn’t work, he puffed.

The governor in April had a member of his senior staff write a caustic letter to a senior Canadian transport official accusing Canadian members of the bridge authority of “foot dragging” and a “lack of cooperation” and demanding the removal of general manager Ron Rienas who, you guessed it, is a Canadian.

When that failed, he threatened to blow the house down.

Cuomo had his minions in the state Legislature gain approval of a bill aimed at disbanding the authority. In doing so, the governor issued a thinly veiled threat to the Canadians: “Do as I say, or else.”

Cuomo flew to Buffalo on Wednesday to announce an agreement to settle what had developed into an ugly cross-border political brawl. With one exception, the agreement was little more than a regurgitation of projects already announced or approved. The only new work involves a traffic study that may or may not lead to an expansion of the bridge plaza.

As part of the deal, Cuomo dropped his demand to control plaza work and agreed to not sign the bill to disband the authority. And Rienas is still on the job.

In other words, Cuomo’s spoils of war amounted to a traffic study.

A traffic study? All this drama and delay for a freakin’ traffic study?

(Heaney analysis begins at 2:12 above)

The Canadians held their ground and prevailed. As well they should have, as most of Cuomo’s rhetoric the past six months was fiction.

He claimed the U.S. side of the bridge has been cheated, ignoring the fact that spending over the past 20 years has been almost dead even and that much of the work done on the Canadian side was aimed at resolving problems on the American side. Many facilities were built on the Canadian side because the authority owns a lot more land in Fort Erie than Buffalo – 70 vs. 18 acres.

The governor also sidestepped the inconvenient fact that the authority last year approved more than $50 million in projects on the U.S. side of the plaza and is prepared to spend up to $30 million more to build a truck inspection center to accommodate American-bound vehicles.

Yeah, those Canadians are really sticking it to us Yanks.

Cuomo and company are, of course, trying to spin Wednesday’s agreement as a “win-win,” as the governor said at the press conference announcing the deal. Assemblyman Sean Ryan, who sponsored the bill calling for dissolution of the authority, issued a press release that patted himself on the back and then declared: “Real, tangible progress on the American side was needed, and that is what today’s agreement ensures.”

Ah, not really. Actually, not even close. Not when you consider what’s in the agreement:

  • The pilot program to inspect U.S- bound trucks in Canada. That deal was announced more than a year ago, so there’s nothing new to this.
  • A reconfiguration of roads and Thruway ramps leading to and from the U.S. side of the bridge. This project was announced earlier this year. Again, nothing new.
  • Redevelopment of a customs warehouse on the bridge plaza. The authority approved this project last year. Nothing new here either, unless you want to count Cuomo’s agreement to no longer hold financing of the work hostage.
  • Construction to widen the foot of the bridge approaching Buffalo to improve traffic flow. Again, the authority approved this work last year, and all that’s new is that the financing will no longer be held hostage.
  • State acquisition of land, including a stretch of Busti Avenue, to expand the plaza. These plans have been around for some time, so nothing new here, either.
  • Commitment to conduct a traffic study of the U.S. plaza, in contemplation of a possible expansion. This is new. Finally.

The governor no doubt hopes this traffic study will make the case to expand the plaza. But there are no guarantees, especially considering that bridge traffic has dropped 28 percent since the 9-11 terror attacks.

What’s more, a recommendation to expand the plaza could face serious hurdles. Under the rules of the game, a plaza expansion could only go forward if two federal agencies – the General Services Administration and Customs and Border Protection – agree to shoulder certain costs, including the additional staffing required to man an expanded number of  inspection booths.

And guess what? Uncle Sam has been pulling a Nancy Reagan of late, as in “Just Say No.”

Consider:

  • The Public Bridge Authority pulled the plug a year ago January on an 11-year Environmental Impact Study in part because the feds wouldn’t agree to pony up.
  • Expansion plans for the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge are shelved for the same reason.
  • The Blue Water Bridge project linking Port Huron, Mich., and Sarnia, Ont, was deep-sixed this February after the feds said no to plans there, as well.

“We just don’t have the federal dollars right now,” Dennis Counihan of U.S. Customs and Border Protection told the Detroit Free Press.

Counihan said the Blue Water Bridge is one of numerous projects stalled because of federal budget constraints.

“We have a lot of projects designed but on hold,” he told the Port Huron Times Herald. “It’s in our interest to push those through, but it’s all the fiscal realities.”

Anybody see handwriting on the wall?

Implied in all this talk about an expanded plaza is that traffic will move more quickly. But without more inspectors, traffic is not going to move appreciably faster. It’s not the bridge design that’s the major hold up, it’s too few inspectors.

Given the current unwillingness of the feds to provide more manpower – and the prospect of ongoing budget problems for the foreseeable future – any push to expand the plaza should be preceded by a discussion with U.S. officials regarding their willingness to support it. This is not a matter of “If you build it, they will come.”

Another major issue that needs to be addressed is the impact of a plaza expansion on the public health of nearby residents. As my colleague Dan Telvock reported last month, asthma rates on the West Side are four times the national average. That’s an epidemic, folks, and the policy makers need to be paying more than lip service to the problem.

Also see Investigative Post’s transparency on Peace Bridge coverage.