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Originally appeared in the Buffalo News on August 7th, 2012.

Brown, Rivera pleased with Cuomo’s actions

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s announcement that the city and the state had reached a preliminary agreement on a crucial part of the Peace Bridge’s expansion plans is widely viewed as a step forward to project supporters, but it does not indicate a done deal.

Meanwhile, Mayor Byron W. Brown and Niagara Council Member David A. Rivera, who had previously expressed frustration with the lack of public knowledge about the expansion plan but stood with Cuomo on Saturday, said they had not changed their position and were pleased with the state’s response to community concerns.

The Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority, which runs the Peace Bridge, hopes to expand its plaza, which it says will ease congestion and make the crossing more efficient. While the expansion has found a champion in Cuomo, some people who live around the bridge and their advocates are opposed to it, saying that removing truck traffic from the bridge is the only way to improve the health of West Side residents.

Though Cuomo, Brown, Rivera and Council President Richard A. Fontana appear to be in agreement on the need for an expansion, those plans could be held

up by a lawsuit that seeks to save houses along Busti Avenue and force the state to conduct a full environmental review before moving ahead with its plans.

The state and the city are negotiating the transfer of two blocks of Busti Avenue, and the state would prefer a “friendly” transfer to taking the land by eminent domain, said authority Chairman Sam Hoyt.

The land is thought to be worth about $2 million, though an appraisal will be performed, Hoyt said.

In June, Brown expressed concerns about the project and said the city hadn’t seen a plan from the authority of what an expansion would look like.

On Monday, he said. “The governor has given me his personal guarantee that this will be done in a proper way that takes the concerns of the Peace Bridge-area residents and the citizens of Western New York into consideration.”

The state has committed to monitoring the air around the bridge, is enforcing idling restrictions and is hoping a binational agreement will allow U.S.-bound trucks to be inspected in Canada, which supporters say will improve air quality.

“We want to mitigate as much as we can poor air quality [and] reduce the congestion on the bridge and the idling that comes as a result of that,” Rivera said.

Rivera said he and the residents are still waiting to see a design of the plaza, and he would like one before the Council votes.

Proceeds of the sale of the land would be spent on projects in the affected neighborhood around the bridge, which Rivera represents. A mechanism for distributing those funds is in development.

Brown was reluctant to put a timeline on the land transfer, calling it “uncertain.”

“Obviously, there are still issues that have to be worked through,” he said.

Air monitoring has been delayed because needed equipment hasn’t arrived yet, but it should start sometime this month, Hoyt said.

For the city to sell the land, instead of the state taking it by eminent domain, six of nine Council members would have to approve.

“One of the disappointments for me is to hear through the media major decisions the governor has made, instead of being briefed on it,” said Ellicott Council Member Darius G. Pridgen.

There is at least one affirmed “no” vote on the Council.

North Council Member Joseph Golombek said hearing about the health problems of people who live near the bridge convinced him that diverting trucks to other bridges is the only good option for the neighborhood.

“I’m voting no,” he said. “This is about the health of the women, the children who live in this neighborhood.”

Hoyt said removing truck traffic from the bridge would never happen. “What we want to ultimately do is keep these vehicles moving,” he said.

Columbus Parkway resident Kathleen Mecca called Cuomo’s announcement “outrageous,” and she rejects the idea that an expanded plaza will improve the air quality.

“Nothing has changed since the previous expansion, except they will continue to position the traffic and the diesel exhaust deeper into the community,” she said.

As part of the plaza expansion, the authority is seeking to demolish eight homes along Busti, a proposal that is the subject of a lawsuit filed by the Campaign for Greater Buffalo History, Architecture and Culture. The lawsuit is seeking a full environmental impact statement.

The group has been granted a temporary restraining order, preventing the authority from demolishing the houses, which are vacant and owned by the authority. The group says the houses have historic value.

Fillmore Council Member David A. Francyzk said he was interested in how the authority’s plan would affect historic structures in the area and that he hadn’t committed to voting either way.

Like others interviewed Monday, Franczyk said he expects the transfer to be approved.

“Once the governor comes to town, who’s going to say no to him?” he said.