A greater role for the state


The winnowing has begun in earnest. Participants in the revitalized public review process for the Peace Bridge expansion project voted Saturday for alternatives on the placement of a new bridge. That session started narrowing the choices en route to a final selection that won't yet decide how a new bridge looks, but will determine where it will be and how it will link the highway systems of two nations.

Unless New York State fully joins this debate - now - those choices will be severely limited.

While the Peace Bridge Authority has done a commendable job of retooling the bridge-selection process and bringing local communities together in an effort to build consensus, it's time for Gov. George Pataki to bring state government into full partnership in this process. The proposals now on the table pose challenges - and opportunities - far beyond the capabilities of a regional Bridge Authority. Options will be lost if the state chooses not to take a full and meaningful part in this discussion while the concepts still are being shaped.

State participation becomes a dominant factor once consideration turns to several options that exceed the Peace Bridge Authority's bonding capacity of about $150 million, or involve other locations up and down the Niagara River.

Given the impacts of terrorist attacks and a slumping economy on the state's own revenue picture, state financing of expensive bridge choices is problematic. But New York's meaningful participation also widens the portal to federal highway funding, a potential source of aid that grew in importance as federal security demands for border crossings also escalated.

The only thing New York State gains by waiting on the sidelines is a chance to dash Western New York's dreams, instead of helping to shape them. Public review facilitator Vincent "Jake" Lamb has done an admirable job of organizing the review process and building local partnerships. But that effort needs deeper commitments from higher governments on both sides of the border. On this side, state participation is the key to those commitments.

Unless Albany simply wants to force Buffalo to ask once more for financial help, it should be at the table now discussing the financial aspects of this project with involved agencies and the public. Plans to build a second truck-and-car bridge linking Ontario's QEW to New York's Thruway by crossing Grand Island, for example, are far beyond the reach of the Bridge Authority, and involve fundamental questions of commercial traffic movement through and around Buffalo for the foreseeable future. They deserve consideration, but neither the planning nor the financial aspects are even worth review unless the state is fully involved.

Recently, most of the Western New York delegation to the State Legislature wrote Pataki, asking him to make New York "fully and integrally engaged and invested as an active partner in not only the scoping and planning process but in the eventual plan of action." That needs to happen. New York's participation can start with bringing the Department of Transportation more deeply into the selection process, and gain momentum from the interest and involvement of the governor.