Originally appeared in the Buffalo News on 6/9/13 by Jerry Zremski

WASHINGTON – Frustrated over the slow pace of American-side improvements at the Peace Bridge, the Cuomo administration last fall tried to take matters into its own hands.

It offered a tentative contract to a D.C.-based firm to design a $126.2 million plaza expansion – even though the state had no authority over the land where the work was to take place.

Canadian members of the Peace Bridge Authority board vehemently objected to the state’s proposal, though, and the contract, as the state envisioned it last fall, was never finalized.

Sources provided to The Buffalo News the state’s proposal, along with an email detailing the design contract. And interviews with people close to the situation spelled out the proposal’s role in creating the escalating cross-border battle over the Peace Bridge’s future.

Unnoticed until now, that contract – and the state’s demand that the Peace Bridge Authority give the state $95 million to complete the plaza expansion – ran counter to the $50 million American plaza improvement plan that the authority board unanimously approved at the same meeting.

That contract and the state’s demand for control are at the root of the dispute that has splintered the authority into competing factions of five Canadians and five Americans, and produced bipartisan local support for the state legislation aimed at abolishing the bridge’s governing body.

“It undermined what we were doing,” Anthony M. Annunziata, a Canadian, who is chairman of the authority, said of the state’s proposal last fall to do the construction itself. “That’s unfortunately why things broke down so quickly.”

State officials offer an entirely different take on the situation.

While acknowledging that the design contract for the project was premature, they said that it was a product of good intentions: an effort to correct a 20-year imbalance where the Canadian side of the Peace Bridge got priority over the comparatively shabby Buffalo bridge plaza.

“To rectify this for the people of Western New York, we proposed an industry standard, a turnkey project where New York State would act as lead consultant on the U.S. plaza project and deliver a high-quality, finished product back to the PBA,” said Maria C. Lehman, the state’s project manager at the bridge. “New York has the ability to use a design/build process to accelerate delivery – the Peace Bridge Authority does not.”

The state’s attempted takeover of the American plaza improvements predates the December move by American members of the Peace Bridge Authority board to oust the Canadian general manager of the Peace Bridge, Ron Rienas, as well as Annunziata’s demand that Sam Hoyt, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s economic point man in the Buffalo area, leave the board.

Two months earlier, in October, two representatives from the Cuomo administration – Bradley Allen and Jeanine Thompson – joined with Lehman in outlining a bold proposal before the board.

‘We were totally stunned’

Offering to put up $31.2 million in state and federal money in Albany’s control, they asked the Peace Bridge Authority for an additional $95 million, and to agree that the state Department of Transportation would serve as “project manager and contractor” for the plaza project, according to a draft of the state proposal.

State officials say they see that as a generous offer to actually get something built at the Peace Bridge after decades of stagnation.

“This was not only the quickest and most efficient way to jump-start this project, but it was our obligation to protect the interests of hundreds of thousands of Western New Yorkers who depend on Peace Bridge commerce,” Lehman said.

But Rienas and the Canadian members of the Peace Bridge Authority board saw it very differently.

The proposal “called for the PBA to write a check in the amount of $95 million to the State of New York and give the state complete control over the PBA’s plaza for at least three years,” Rienas wrote in a May 24 memo to the Peace Bridge Authority board.

Annunziata, for one, was not impressed.

“How do you dignify that with a response?” he said. “We were totally stunned and didn’t know why the state felt, given the plaza improvements that had been made on the Canadian side, that we couldn’t do the job on the American side.”

He noted that an earlier state plan for the Peace Bridge prompted an environmental-impact study that dragged on for more than a decade before being abandoned.

“Their track record hasn’t led to anything,” Annunziata added.

Although Annunziata said the Canadian members of the Peace Bridge Authority board never entered negotiations that could have led to an agreement based on the state’s proposal, state officials said that negotiations had taken place and that they were confident a deal could be struck.

In fact, state DOT officials were so confident that they moved forward on a contract for engineering work. State officials said the contract, which would have been valued at no more than $5 million, went to the most qualified bidder as called for under state law.

That bidder turned out to be Parsons Transportation Group, a D.C.-based subsidiary of a huge California firm that has done a great deal of work for both the state and the Peace Bridge in the past.

Coordination lacking

David Mackey, a state DOT official, noted in a Nov. 16 email that the contract went to Parsons. And the attendant “Regional Design Services Agreement” says the deal would involve design work and a possible environmental-impact statement, for a major project at the Peace Bridge.

“The tasks may include: traffic capacity analysis, highway and parking lot design, accident analysis, design survey and mapping, right-of-way survey and mapping, environmental analyses, preliminary highway design, preliminary bridge design, Intelligent Transportation Systems [ITS] design, and in-depth structural inspections,” the agreement says. “Public involvement, public hearings, coordination with regulatory agencies – U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and others – will be necessary.”

Coordination with the Peace Bridge Authority, though, wasn’t part of the picture.

The awarding of the contract was “unbeknownst to the PBA” until Reinas heard about it from another engineering firm, the Peace Bridge general manager said in his memo to the board.

Rienas immediately notified Annunziata.

“My honest reaction was: This was a huge overstep on behalf of the state,” Annunziata said. What’s more, “they were withholding information, not telling us things.”

State officials acknowledged that they moved too fast on the contract but insist that they did so for good reason: The governor wanted action at the Peace Bridge, and quickly signing a deal for engineering work would get things moving on a project that had been mired in inertia for years.

That didn’t happen. The Canadian members of the Peace Bridge Authority refused to even officially consider the Cuomo administration offer to take over the American plaza expansion, and the contract with Parsons, while still pending, was scaled back to cover only a ramp-improvement project at the bridge.

And with the state’s grand plans shot down by the Canadians and the Peace Bridge Authority board now divided along national lines, the board sank into dysfunction.

Board meetings in January, February and March were canceled amid the acrimony, and when the board finally reconvened in April, its American members – appointed by the governor – emerged with a statement afterward citing Rienas’ “numerous shortcomings and dereliction of duty.”

Failing to ‘address the mess’

State officials insist that the American members of the board are incensed over inaction on the American plaza under Rienas’ watch.

In fact, Assemblyman Sean M. Ryan, D-Buffalo, and State Sen. Mark J. Grisanti, R-Buffalo, are so incensed that they’re pushing legislation that could result in the dissolution of the Peace Bridge Authority – and a state takeover of the American plaza.

The state’s offer did not spell out the details of the proposed $126.2 million plaza project. But Ryan said he hoped the state effort would result in a more comprehensive plaza design that, unlike the Peace Bridge Authority projects approved to date, would result in a direct connection between the Peace Bridge and Interstate 190.

“What their proposal does not do is address the mess” at the American plaza, Ryan said of the already approved $50 million plan.

Bitterness lingers

So far, the Peace Bridge Authority’s plan for the plaza is more limited than Ryan’s vision.

The $50 million capital plan the board unanimously approved includes widening the approach to the bridge inspection booths, a new ramp to move traffic off the plaza more efficiently and a new customs house on the American side.

But in his May memo to the board, Rienas said the ultimate scope of the American plaza improvements could not be determined until the end of a pending pilot project in which U.S.-bound truck cargo will be preinspected on the Canadian side of the bridge. That pilot project most likely will not be completed until 2015.

Now, though, Annunziata said that even those previously approved American-side improvements are now in jeopardy because of the stalemate over the future of the Peace Bridge Authority.

And it’s all happening, he said, because of a state takeover attempt that he still does not understand.

“This is what the Peace Bridge Authority is here to do: to manage the bridge and the plazas,” he said. “Why would we abdicate that responsibility?”