BUFFALO, N.Y. — Plans for a new bridge between New York and Ontario and an expanded inspection plaza at one of the northern border's busiest ports of entry were abandoned by federal authorities Tuesday, clearing the way for the bridge's U.S. and Canadian operators to pursue scaled-back improvements on their own.
Federal authorities ended their plans for a new Peace Bridge and plaza project after more than a decade of delays and debate over what the project should look like and its effect on the surrounding Buffalo neighborhood.
The action frees the bridge's operators to pursue congestion-relieving improvements without the kind of red tape that came with the Federal Highway Administration's involvement, supporters of the move said.
Instead of a new bridge and 37-acre plaza expected to cost $350 million, the Peace Bridge Authority will leave in place the existing three-lane bridge and reconfigure and expand the current plaza from 17 acres to 25 acres, adding seven inspection lanes for a total of 25. The new plans will largely preserve a historic neighborhood that would have seen 83 homes demolished under the bigger footprint.
The new project, with an estimated cost of $70 to $100 million, will be funded by the Peace Bridge Authority, the U.S.-Canadian body that operates the span between Buffalo and Fort Erie, Ontario, through revenue generated by tolls. The authority has most of the money on hand, while funding for the more ambitious $350 million plans had yet to be secured. The renovations are expected to take three years.
"This ends a 12-year process that has produced no tangible results toward improving the traffic congestion problem on both the bridge and the American plaza," U.S. Rep. Brian Higgins said after the FHWA formally terminated a long-running federal environmental review process with a notice in the Federal Register on Tuesday. "Now there is local control."
The Peace Bridge ranks second in passenger traffic and third in commercial truck traffic among all northern border crossings, handling about 6 million vehicles each year. An estimated $40 billion in trade crosses the span annually, a number threatened by frequent backups of tractor-trailers waiting to get into the United States.
Tuesday's action shelves plans for a new, higher capacity "signature bridge" the Peace Bridge Authority and others had envisioned to either replace or complement the existing 84-year-old span. Authority chairman Anthony Annunziata called the end of the lengthy expansion project effort disappointing but said the agency was fortunate to have the means to begin improvements on its own.
"There remains little doubt that the current plaza is woefully inadequate and in desperate need of reconfiguration and renovations to meet today's security and processing requirements, as well as to improve aesthetics and environmental conditions," Annunziata said.
Idling tractor-trailers have been blamed for high asthma rates in the west side neighborhood where the plaza is located.
Proposed changes to the American plaza are under review by U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the General Services Administration, the PBA said.
Meanwhile, the U.S. and Canadian governments continue to discuss the idea of prescreening of trucks on the less-crowded Canadian side of the Peace Bridge as a way to improve the flow of traffic.