06/20/2013 03:44 EDT | Updated 08/20/2013 05:12 EDT

Gary Doer issues warning to New York state in Peace Bridge dispute

WASHINGTON - Efforts to modernize the busy Peace Bridge have left Canada's relationship with New York state perched on a knife's edge, with U.S. Ambassador Gary Doer promising a fight against American efforts to dissolve the 80-year-old Peace Bridge Authority.

"If the New York assembly wants to go ahead, we're going to protect our sovereignty," Doer said in an interview from the Canadian embassy.

"We don't need a legal opinion to understand that this is a bridge between two countries, not a diving board under the authority of the New York state assembly, but if they have to go to court to find that out, we have legal precedents we can stand on. But we prefer not to waste our time."

A blistering brawl has erupted in recent months on the bi-national authority aimed at expanding and modernizing the Niagara River border crossing. Made up of five Canadians and five Americans, the panel has degenerated into angry demands for ousters, bitter name-calling and public trash-talking — all during an era of supposedly harmonious Canada-U.S. border relations.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo's allies in the state legislature passed a bill last week that would disband the previously placid authority outright. That drastic move came as Americans on the panel complained that their Canadian counterparts have been deliberately dragging their feet in favour of developing the Fort Erie, Ont., side of the crossing at the expense of the U.S. side.

Those assertions have been met with outrage from the Canadians on the Peace Bridge Authority.

In fact, said Doer, regulatory red tape on the American side of the crossing is what's really been hindering progress.

"For seven years, the tennis ball has bounced around on the New York side for environmental assessment, so we would argue to the New York assembly that maybe they need a mirror," he said.

"We'd rather hire hard hats than lawyers."

New York Sen. Chuck Schumer is attempting to resolve at least one of the outstanding disputes by inserting an amendment into sweeping immigration legislation that's currently under consideration in the U.S. Senate. The amendment would permanently move a pre-clearance inspection centre for U.S.-bound cargo to the Canadian side of the bridge.

Schumer has long pushed to move the facility to Fort Erie because it's much bigger. It was stalled by Canada's refusal to let U.S. border agents carry weapons, but the federal government agreed to armed agents when it signed an agreement with the U.S. earlier this year that also applies to the border crossing between Surrey, B.C., and Blaine, Wash.

Parliament still has to pass legislation on that agreement, however.

"This just goes to show that despite all the problems with the Peace Bridge Authority, shared border management continues to steam ahead," Schumer told the Buffalo News of his proposal.

Nonetheless, it's uncertain whether Schumer's proposal will ever see the light of day. Once the Senate approves the immigration bill, it then has to get the green light from the far more conservative House of Representatives. Schumer, however, says he's determined to make his proposal law, and will find another vehicle for it if it doesn't succeed via the immigration bill.

The Peace Bridge Authority approved $50 million in improvements to the American side of the border crossing in October. But Ron Rienas, the authority’s Canadian chairman, has warned those improvements are in jeopardy because of the New York state legislation.

The board is scheduled to meet again on June 28.

The Canadian side has obtained a legal opinion on the bill from a Buffalo law firm. PhillipsLytle has determined that the New York state government "lacks the power to enact the proposed changes without the consent of the government of Canada" and the U.S. Secretary of State.

Cuomo campaigned in 2010 on promises to kick-start the long-stalled Peace Bridge modernization projects, in particular expanding the plaza on the U.S. side in order to ease congestion and cross-border trade.

In recent weeks, he's appointed another loyalist, Anthony Masiello, to the Peace Bridge Authority. Masiello said this week he hopes the courts don't ultimately have to get involved in the dispute.

"We know from our past that lawsuits delay action and create hard feelings," Masiello said.

"We agree with our Canadian friends that we need to ride above the rift and expedite the plaza for positive progress for both sides of border."