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Robbing Peter to Pay Paul

Here’s one possible reason the governor might want the NFTA to take over Peace Bridge operations

Governor Andrew Cuomo’s recent attempts to force the Peace Bridge Authority to disband may have more to do with robbing Peter to pay Paul than with a desire to reenact the War of 1812.

The harsh attacks against the Canadian officials on the PBA that the governor and his surrogates have unleashed may be a cover for his desire to tap into the PBA’s capital in order to shore up the shaky finances of the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority’s budget.

Last week, in a Buffalo News article by Bob McCarthy entitled “US Review focuses on NFTA’s finances, funding formulas raise fiscal concern,” we learned that “The federal government has launched a special review of Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority finances, expressing concern about its continuing economic challenges.”

Perhaps the governor is so adamant about the NFTA takeover of the PBA because he sees Peace Bridge toll revenue as a remedy to the NFTA’s funding problems, some of which include the ability to match federal money. The article goes on to state that the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) “is concerned that the continuing economic challenges facing NFTA may imperil NFTA’s ability to match FTA program funds…”

NFTA Executive Director Kimberly Minkel points out that the NFTA is responsible for two airports and the subway in addition to bus service. Perhaps another squandered opportunity is the “other” airport in Niagara Falls. Given its proximity to Canada, why has it been so unproductive and underutilized? That’s a question for another article.

It seems logical then that the governor is eager for the NFTA to take over the operations on the American side of the Peace Bridge in order to provide the NFTA with a new revenue stream. Currently the Peace Bridge Authority’s toll revenues are set aside for bridge and plaza maintenance. If those toll revenues were not only tapped but perhaps borrowed against, wouldn’t that create a shortfall, or would the Canadian government be expected to cover those expenses? We haven’t reached that part of the discussion because the Canadians are refusing to play ball.

Although various projects have been undertaken by the Peace Bridge Authority to improve the flow of traffic over the bridge, it’s important to remember that it was political forces on this side of the border that helped scuttle the PBA’s plans to expand bridge capacity with a twin span. Those political forces were greatly aided by the Buffalo News.

In 2000, Bill Logal writing for the Buffalo Alternative Press documented the role the Buffalo News played in halting the project:

Between Jan.1, 1994 and December 30, 1996, while the design issues were at their most critical phase, The Buffalo News published only 129 articles about the bridge (by comparison, they have published over 418 articles from the end of that period to the present (2000)! We ask: What powerful forces pricked their resolve?). An Oct. 22, 1994 article suggested a sense of urgency that was somehow squandered by both the bridge designers and the News, “The Peace Bridge is in good shape and won’t need resurfacing for at least 10 years, but it will reach its maximum capacity within three to five years...before then, the PBA must decide whether it will widen the present span from three to six lanes or construct a twin span…

In other words, it wasn’t until the design phase was complete that the Buffalo News started raising a hue and cry over “better” alternatives. Most of these alternatives required substantial borrowing, despite the fact that the PBA had funding for its twin span largely in place some 20 years ago. In the end, of course, it was politicians like Sam Hoyt and Tony Masiello that forced the PBA to undertake an environmental impact study on both the plaza and the bridge, thereby killing the twin span for good.

Now these same individuals are joining Cuomo in demanding that the Peace Bridge Authority be disbanded immediately. The lifelong Buffalo pols who thwarted the PBA 15 years ago are now blaming the Canadian officials for stalling and the governor is placing that failure squarely on the Canadian officials’ shoulders, without a trace of irony. A recent Buffalo News article quoted Cuomo as saying, “The Peace Bridge is a metaphor to me for an overall failure of economic development for the region…You can’t allow projects like this to linger for 20 years.”

Initially most American business leaders in Buffalo were in agreement that a Peace Bridge twin span coupled with an extension of Route 219 could potentially create a “NAFTA highway,” putting Buffalo at a critical trade juncture and creating numerous light manufacturing spin off companies. It turned out to be yet another project that never came to fruition.

Meanwhile, another silver bullet mega-project seems to loom over our eastern horizon in the form of a subway extension to UB’s Amherst campus. The governor also announced a plan to turn the UB environs in that neck of the woods into a tax-free corporate paradise. If the rail were extended to Amherst, wouldn’t a brand new stadium for the Buffalo Bills and the UB Bulls make for a nice pot of gold at the end of that rainbow? Perhaps this is why local developer Paul Ciminelli has joined forces with the governor in his battle against our neighbors to the north.

And you thought the Bass Pro project was a big swing? Take that, Toronto.

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