(Artvoice 16 March 2000)

Peace Bridge Chronicles:
Fighting All the Way

by Bruce Jackson

All sides in the Peace Bridge Border War were going pedal-to-the-metal for the past week:

—the team of Canadian and American consultants hired by the Public Consensus Review Panel and the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority turned out not to have been asking the questions the Public Consensus Review Panel thought they were asking
— 85 people told the Review Panel what they thought of the consultants’ preliminary report
— the PBA and the Canadian government continued their vigorous attempts to pressure the PCRP to vote for a steel twin span
—after its misleading commercials were cancelled by all Buffalo tv stations the PBA went back to doing it in print
—  Erie County Executive Joel Giambra and PBA chairman Vic Martucci tried to broker a last-minute compromise but the other nine members of the PBA turned it down flat
— The Buffalo News continued shilling for the PBA, and
—The consultant’s final report still hadn’t arrived five days after the deadline and nobody was saying why.

What the Engineers Missed
On Tuesday morning, March 7, the Public Review Consensus Panel met with its Canadian and American consulting engineers to discuss problems in the engineers’ preliminary report (which had been made public at a session televised by WNED on February 29). The meeting revealed major differences in what the engineers thought they’d been hired to do and what the Panel thought they were paying to get. Some members said they that after reading the details of the report they couldn’t figure out how the engineers managed to recommend the twin span with the rebuilt Parker Truss, since the body of the report seemed to say that was the most expensive and time-consuming of the viable options.

The engineers said that the most important factor was when construction would start, and since all the options other than the twin span would require an Environmental Impact Study, the twin span therefore had a great advantage. There was, as I recall, a stunned silence, followed by several vigorous responses. Former Erie County district attorney Edward Cosgrove, representing the Common Council on the Panel, said, “When did you start accepting the schedule of the PBA?” Mark Mitskowski, vice president of the Peace Bridge Columbus Park Association, said, “The time that matters isn’t when you start. It’s when you finish, and what you finish with.” Review Panel co-chair Gail Johnstone suggested that when the engineers set to work on their final report they do it with the end rather than the beginning of the process in mind. The engineers said they would take that into consideration.

Vox Populi
That night and the next, a studio audience of as many as 800 listened for more than 7 hours as 85 people gave the panel their opinions of the preliminary report and the PBA’s plans.

Nine speakers (5 of them Canadian officials) endorsed the twin span, 18 didn’t address the bridge question at all (some focused on plaza issues, some talked about general public policy matters, one urged the panel to do whatever was best, one thanked everyone involved she could think of by name, one talked about exercise and how much he liked going back and forth across the bridge in nice weather, and one discussed at length the kind of light show she thought would work very well atop whatever bridge was in place when this was over). (Click here for extracts from some of those statements.)

The other 58 speakers (some of them Canadians) all endorsed a signature bridge. Some of those simply expressed opinions, some detailed their own experiences dealing with the PBA, and some presented hard data. The last group included Senator Moynihan’s representative Tony Bullock, who informed the panel that there was a great deal of Federal money specifically available for this project should the PBA want to avail itself of it; UB professor John Mander, who discussed the economics of pre-stressed concrete cable-stayed bridges; and Jay Rohleder of the Figg Engineering Group who talked about the specific costs and timelines of such a project here.

John Mander had one of the best lines of the evening about the twin span: “It is a travesty of technology where we end up with a double mediocrity.”

Joe Camel
Nearly all of the supporters of the twin span—the Canadians, PBA chairman Victor Martucci, a woman who represented Ciminelli Construction, and county legislator Al DeBenedetti—reminded me of those tobacco company executives who testified before Congress a few years ago, the ones who said that if anyone could show them any real evidence that cigarettes caused harm they’d of course stop peddling the deadly poison, but they’d never seen any such evidence or there wasn’t any such evidence, so they’d continue with what they were doing, thank you. (One person who urged the panel to vote for the twin span was west side real estate developer Bob Biniszkiewicz, who didn’t support the twin span so much as he feared that the PBA wouldn’t develop the plaza if the panel didn’t recommend a twin span. His concern seemed to be solely with property values.)

Martucci’s first sentence was misleading. He said he was chairman of the “Peace Bridge Authority.” There is no Peace Bridge Authority. The organization he chairs is the “Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority.” They avoid using that word–public–whenever they can, all of them, the people who put the messages on the answering machines, the general managers, and now the new chairman. In his eight-minute statement Martucci said “Peace Bridge Authority” six times; he never said “Public Bridge Authority” once.

Not one of the twin span proponents engaged the very specific testimony from John Mander or Jay Rohleder, both of whom provided exactly the kind of data they said was missing. Neither did I ever hear any of the engineers on the binational consulting panel ever deal with their very specific information.

Which suggests that those of us who have tried using facts and reason to get the PBA and the Canadians to change their minds are probably answering the wrong question or arguing the wrong argument. We keep trying to figure out why they prefer the steel bridge when cable stayed segmented concrete is better and faster and cheaper, and we keep looking for arguments to show them that the signature span isn’t just pretty, but practical.

There’s got to be a compelling reason why what seem like solid facts to so many of us are of no interest to the PBA or its supporters. Surely something more than mere truck traffic is behind the arrogant presentation by the representative of the Toronto city council who told the Panel that the Toronto council had voted about what we should do, something more than the number of lanes on the bridge is behind the barrage of letters to the Panel from a half-dozen Canadian provincial and national politicians demanding or urging an immediate start on construction. If they were really interested in the problem of truck delays they’d be politicking the US government to add staff to the real bottleneck, the truck processing operation. So we probably haven’t seen the real reasons for all of this. It’s difficult enough finding the political payoffs on this side of the border; I don’t know where to start looking on the northern side. But I haven’t a doubt that they are there and they are compelling.

What I think the Mayor Said
Mayor Masiello was expansive and clear about the proposed new plaza. When it came to the bridge choice, he seemed to be pushing hard for the twin span but didn’t come out and say it.

He thanked everybody and every thing who has or had anything to do with the argument now in process: the funders of the panel, the panel members, the PBA, Bruno Freschi, WNED. He said the sort of good-sounding but empty things mayors say at events like this, such as, "I pledge to you that whatever new bridge sysem is finally recommended, it will be the capstone of a revitalization of the west side of Buffalo” (the underlining is in the text his staff handed out).

He said he agreed with the consultants that a new plaza was better than the old plaza and the the restoration of Front Park and reclamation of Fort Porter were good for the city. He went on at length at how much he supported a “signature gateway” and how he’d do all he could to see that it worked. That’s good. His support will help that move along, if the PBA doesn’t find a way to weasel out of it, as many of its critics expect it will.

The Mayor didn’t get to the bridge for a long time. This is what he said:

      As representatives of the community, if you feel the ‘signature’ bridge issue is most important, and the recommended bridge does not pass the ‘signature’ litmus test, then you must not ratify the final recommendations.
      On the other hand, if you feel economic development, a signature gateway, the restoration of Front Park and Fort Porter, the revitalization of the West Side community are most important, and this recommendation provides a unique opportunity for economic development dollars and jobs to flow into the region as soon as possible, then you must ratify the final recommendations conditioned upon the building of the northern plaza

When he was done several people said, “There’s Tony, waffling again as usual.” They were wrong: he wasn’t waffling at all. He just wasn’t owning up to what he was saying and he was setting himself up for a good speech later:  however things go he’ll be able to claim he was on the winning side.

Of course he was pushing the PBA/Canadian agenda.

The worst part was how he espoused the PBA’s duplicitous either/or gambit: you’re either for aesthetics or you’re for everything else. In that equation how could ANYONE choose aesthetics? Aesthetics OR economic development, a new plaza, community development, and restoration of the Park? You’d have to be nuts to choose aesthetics, a silly aesthete to choose aesthetics, a person with no sense of responsibility to choose aesthetics. It’s like saying, “The choice is yours: you can dress your children in pretty clothes OR you can give them food and send them to school and give them health care. The choice is yours and I’m not taking any position on it.”Sure you’re not.

Four people worked on the mayor’s speech. You’d think that one of them would have pointed out to him that no such choice is necessary: choosing a signature bridge doesn’t mean rejecting the plaza. You really can choose two from column A, if you want to.

The Propaganda Campaign
All week long, the PBA kept up its assault on the Review Panel. Denied local tv time because it wouldn’t put its name on its commercials, it shifted to direct political pressure. There were letters urging the panel to accept the Canadian/PBA plan from New York and Canadian politicians who didn’t represent anyone in any of the affected districts on this side of the river and who hadn’t attended any of the hearings. The PBA even hired an Albany lobbyist. At a press conference Sunday afternoon, Mark Mitskowski said, “The PBA signed an agreement with the Public Consensus Review Panel to work towards a public consensus, not to undermine it with a hired lobbyist and hundreds of thousands of dollars in advertising expenditures.”

The PBA is continuing in print the same kind of misinformation it had in the commercials that got kicked off the air. This question and answer from an 8-page glossy insert they published in last week’s Business First should give you an idea of the quality of information they’re putting out:

Can a single-span bridge be built in the same amount of time as a companion span?

 No. Any new plan or option will require a new Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and only then can construction begin. This will take eight to 10 years.

Eight to ten years for an EIS? Even their own engineers put that at two years max, and that’s a worst-case scenario. And referring to “a new Environimental Impact Statement” implies that there is an old one, which there isn’t. The PBA has spent a fortune avoiding one. An EIS is the public works equivalent of truth-in-lending, and the PBA will do nearly anything to avoid that.

The PBA’s Daily
On Thursday March 9, the day after the public hearings, the Buffalo News ran an editorial saying that the twin-arch design (which would rebuild the old bridge so it looked like the new bridge after the new bridge was up) was a great improvement over the simple companion span design (which would have left the ugly Parker truss in place). That is certainly true, but it surely isn’t anything new: the PBA offered it as an option years ago and several times said it would consider such a design—if someone else came up with the money. Bridge general manager Stephen F. Mayer said that when he talked to the Review Panel about alternative options last December.

The editorial went on to say that there was a far better option “a majestic cable-stay bridge that connects to a new northern plaza combines the aesthetics this community deserves with the practicality necessary to capture the economic benefits of increased truck traffic. And it does that while restoring Front Park and freeing the lower West Side from the intrusive effects of smoke-belching rigs rumbling through the neighborhood.” Right on. The editorial says such a bridge would be $10 million cheaper. It even argues the thus far unexamined claim that there would be problems connecting such a bridge on the Canadian side: “But that's why God created human ingenuity. Given the boost such a bridge would give to the community, it's worth trying to solve those problems.”

Great stuff, huh? The Buffalo News finally coming down on the side of reason, finally considering the community’s interests in this key issue, finally getting the point.

No. It’s just sucker-bait. They say all those good things, only to wind up once again in the pocket of the PBA: “The Peace Bridge Authority remains anxious to get this project done. The community wants it done right. Despite our preference for the cable-stayed option, we fully recognize that the graceful twin-arch design meets both those objectives.”

How does “that graceful twin-arch design” meet the objective of getting “it done right?” That plan will result in enormous disruption of life on the west side of Buffalo. It will send thousands of trucks lumbering through Delaware Park every days for six years. It will cost two or three times as much to maintain as a signature span and before very long the old bridge will have to be replaced in its entirety, once again subjecting the city to this dirt and disruption. The editorial acknowledges none of the evidence easily available indicating that the PBA's numbers on cost, time, and disruption are all seriously defective. (The News has never applied any of its vast investigative resources to an examination of any of the PBA’s activities and claims.)

If it were just lousy journalism we could mark this, say “What’s new?” and go on to something else, but the editorial is far more pernicious than that. The logical inference from its final paragraph, which the PBA will surely point out, is this: Since the Buffalo News says either choice is just fine, why not start construction in June as we’ve planned all along? Why wait another moment?

Would the News have been so cavalier with the city’s interests and so much in the service of the PBA’s if there were another daily newspaper that could call them on the hypocrisy immediately? When Warren Buffet killed the Courier-Express he did this community as much harm as when the PBA destroyed  Front Park.

A Compromise Denied
The engineers were supposed to get their revised report to the Panel office last Friday but they didn’t deliver. In the absence of the report, County Executive Joel Giambra made a brave attempt to broker a compromise and PBA chairman Victor Martucci, who had seemed adamantly opposed to anything but the twin span in his March 7 appearance at the public meeting, seemed willing to give it a try. They met with Jeff Belt, the New Millennium Group representative to the Review Panel, to talk about the possibilities.

All the proposals for a 6-lane bridge going into a northern plaza had focused on a bridge north of the current bridge. In his statement to the Panel Tuesday night, Tony Bullock, Senator Moynihan’s chief of staff, had pointed out that the bi-national engineering team never considered the possibility of a 6-lane concrete bridge just south of the current bridge, in the same location the PBA is planning on putting its second span. If that could work--and there seemed little reason to suppose it wouldn’t--then all the Canadian permits the PBA already has would still be valid and there would be none of the problems some Canadians have claimed would arise with archaeological sites if any other location were chosen (I’ve always thought those claims enormously overinflated, but this would obviate them anyway.)

Such a bridge would land at the new northern plaza, just as the twin span would, but once it was up the old Peace Bridge would no longer be needed. The Canadians who claim undying affection for the old bridge could maintain it as a pedestrian and bike bridge or as an antique---if they wanted to pay for the upkeep. In all likelihood, their affection would have faded fairly soon after the new bridge became operational and the old bridge would have been torn down.

“The hope was that Martucci could gain the PBA's approval of a two week extension of the engineers' deadline so that this alternative could be studied,” Belt said. “In fact, all indicators were that the 6-lane concrete option would be about $15 million cheaper than the twin span plan, it would create more local construction jobs and construction could begin this summer if the PBA was permitted to keep the bridge and plaza segmented in the environmental review. Giambra's plan was to introduce this solution to the bridge impasse while coming out in strong support of the northern plaza and restoration of Front Park.”

There were problems with this idea. If construction was to begin this summer, then it wouldn’t be the soaring cable-stayed bridge that had caught everyone’s imagination. The PBA would start work on the cofferdams and there would be a quick design process. There would be no Environmental Impact Study. And since it would be landing further to the south than any of the north-plaza signature designs, it would keep the northernmost portion of Front Park, an area Olmsted called “The Bank,” from being restored.

The compromise the PBA, the consulting engineers, and the Canadians had proposed—that they build the bridge they wanted to build all along and we build the plaza over which they have no say—was no compromise, it was just a suggestion that we roll over and wait to see how inventive they’d get. This would be a compromise; it would require some give on both sides. Was it worth doing? That’s what the two weeks’ examination by the consultants might reveal.

Belt thought it was at least worth studying and talking about and so did Martucci. But the PBA board—all nine of them according to Belt—refused to accept the two-week delay the study would require. They were confident they controlled enough votes on the Review Panel to force a recommendation for the twin span now and they saw no reason to look at any alternative.

I asked Belt if he was certain that the PBA vote against consideration of a possible compromise was unanimous. He said that, so far as he knew, it was. If he’s right, that means Barbara Kavanaugh, who represents New York Attorney General Elliot Spitzer on the PBA, voted with the Canadians against the Buffalo community on this issue. This might explain why Assistant Attorney General Kavanaugh hasn’t returned one of the last four telephone calls from Artvoice asking questions about PBA policy and why Spitzer’s office has been so quiet about the Peace Bridge issue for so long.

Consultant’s Report? What Consultant’s Report?
The report that the Canadian government officials, the PBA, lower West Side real estate developer Bob Biniszkiewicz, and a small group of New York officials are urging the Panel to accept was only a preliminary report. No one has seen the final report. It was due last Friday, March 10, but it didn’t arrive. It hadn’t arrived by the afternoon of Tuesday March 14, when the Review Panel had been scheduled to vote on it. It hadn’t arrived by noon of Wednesday March 15, when Artvoice went to press.

Review Panel co-chair Gail Johnstone wrote a letter to Victor A. Martucci reminding him that the 12 November and 2 December agreements between the Authority and the Steering Committee of the Panel had “provided that the PCRP has 14 days from the time the Bi-National Project Review Team submitted its Final Report to issue its determination. Since the PCRP has not as of this date received the Bi-National Project Review Team Report, be advised, on behalf of the steering Committee, that the PCRP will issue its decision no later than 14 days from receipt of the Final Report from the Bi-National Team by the co-chairs.”

Which is to say, the co-chairs weren’t going to ask their panelists to vote on a report that didn’t exist, no matter how heavy the political pressure from Albany and Ottawa to do so, and if and when the report did arrive, the co-chairs had every intention of not rushing to judgement on it. It is now possible that the Review Panel will not issue its final report until after the March 27 date Judge Eugene Fahey has set for his final ruling on the Episcopal Church Home and Olmsted Society lawsuits against the PBA.

What if the engineers take seriously the data produced by Mander and Rohleder? What if they think the concerns of the people who live here matter? What if they start looking at when the construction ends and what we end up with? What if they take into account the huge amount of federal funds Tony Bullock said would be available to a project that really was open and above board? Will they change their preliminary conclusion? The PBA is confident that they won’t, that they will ignore all information offered in response to their preliminary report and Gail Johnstone’s suggestion that they don’t base their decision on the PBA’s timetable. Is the PBA hoping or does it know things the rest of us don’t?

I don’t know what’s going on under the table, but so far as I know there are no deals presently on the table. The PBA said in December that it would consider a northern plaza, but only if the city would let it reroute Niagara Street and if someone else would find the money to build it; thus far, it has committed itself to nothing and neither has the city.  The attorney for the Episcopal Church Home and Olmsted Society told the Review panel how much it would cost the PBA if it elected to expand its current plaza or if it decided to build a new plaza; the PBA hasn’t responded to any of that. All that exists is a huge amount of political pressure from Albany and Canada for the Review Panel to ratify a consultant’s report that doesn’t even exist.

It’s gotten mean and nasty, but it isn’t over yet.

copyright 2000 Bruce Jackson

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