(Artvoice 23 March 2000)

Peace Bridge Chronicles:
Turning Tricks on the Niagara Frontier

by Bruce Jackson
 

The Consulting Engineers’ Final Report
The four engineering consulting firms hired by the Public Consensus Review Panel and the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority to evaluate ways of dealing with Peace Bridge capacity and condition delivered their final report and recommendations on Thursday, March 16, six days late.

Two of the engineering firms—Amman and Whitney and The Louis Berger Group—were hired by the Review Panel and were charged with representing the community. The other two–Buckland & Taylor and Parsons Brinkerhoff—were hired by the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority and were charged with representing the Authority. It was a misalliance doomed from the start and objectivity never had a chance. How could a group, half of it charged with representing the public good and the other half with protecting a narrow economic franchise, be expected to do anything but cut out a deal?

And cut a deal they did. The panel recommended a companion span (which would allow the Public Bridge Authority to continue its present operation without having to submit to the inspection of any outside agency) and a new toll plaza for Buffalo. Two clients, two construction projects. Questions about what might best serve the city or region and the commercial industries using the bridge system were secondary to that division of interest. At the end, data didn’t drive them to an inevitable conclusion. Rather, an inevitable conclusion determined which data they chose to consider at all.

When I read their report I thought of Herman Melville’s comment on consultants in “Billy Budd,” his great story about legalism in conflict with justice: “There is nothing namable but that some men will undertake to do it for pay.”

Why was the report almost a week late when the engineers knew that the Review Panel was operating under pressure of a pending court hearing with Judge Eugene Fahey? I heard that one or two of the four wanted to recommend a signature span and the others did not. They had agreed from the beginning that they would deliver a single recommendation: there would be no split vote and no minority report. So they wrangled and negotiated until the signature span holdout or holdouts finally gave in.

I asked one of the four principal engineers if that story were true, and, if it were not, what was the reason for the delay. He wouldn’t answer, so I can only speculate—not that it much matters at this point. If they all signed on to the report, when they decided to give their name to it is of far less import than what they gave their name to.

Five Recommendations They Were Willing to Provide
These are the five things the four engineering firms said we ought to do:

1. Set up a legally-binding partnership between Buffalo, Fort Erie, and the Public Bridge Administration.

2. Move the plaza to the northern location designated in their various documents as plaza E, the one advocated by the PBA.

3. Begin construction of a companion bridge this year.

4. Commission design studies to replace the Parker truss on the old bridge.

5. Pursue funding for additional customs & INS staffing at the border.

The first is political and, as Reverend Ivery Williams pointed out in the final meeting of the engineers and the Review Panel on the morning of March 7, none of their concern. They were asked to make technical evaluations of bridge systems, not to design international organizations. Since there already is an organization that makes legally-binding agreements between Buffalo and Fort Erie—the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority— this recommendation is also redundant. The present mess arose because that organization wouldn’t act as a responsible citizen. Why would creating a new organization consisting of exactly the same components be any more useful or ethical?

The second recommendation— moving the new plaza to the site suggested by the PBA—is unobjectionable, unless you object to the PBA unnecessarily chewing up a big hunk of Niagara street.

The third—build the twin span and do it soon—  is a shame, scandal and abomination, and shows you why some people say you hire a consultant for one, but not both, of two reasons: to find out what you didn’t know or to convince somebody else that what you’ve already decided is right, no matter what the facts or truths are.

The fourth—design something to replace the Parker truss—  seems reasonable enough, since it would be hard to replace the Parker truss without designing the replacement. This recommendation would be unnecessary had they done a responsible job with recommendation number three.

And the fifth—fix the mess at the border processing—  is important, given that the present congestion on the bridge is not the result of too few lanes on the bridge but of too few inspectors available to move trucks through Customs and INS once they are off the bridge.

(Each section of the consultants’ report was prefaced by a blue page with pictures of several bridges and, in large type, the word “Section” followed by the appropriate numeral. The text on the blue page for the recommendations says “Section 8.” The engineers probably didn’t mean anything special by it, but to anybody who spent time in the US military that phrase has a very specific meaning. A “Section 8” is the kind of discharge they gave you when they decided you were totally looney.)

Four Questions They Avoided
These are four of the key questions raised by the Panel and by speakers at the March 7 and 8 hearings they chose not to address:

—Would clearing up the border processing mess obviate the need for a new bridge entirely? That is, if the bridge simply spilled into clear highways would it have to be replaced at all? (Its overall decrepit condition notwithstanding.) One of the Canadian representatives at last week’s hearings suggested moving the whole US processing operation to the Canadian side where, he said, there’s plenty of room for it. We already do that sort of thing at the Toronto airport and it works perfectly well.

—If the only reason for a new bridge is to handle increased truck traffic, wouldn’t a better regional solution be to route them through Lewiston-Queenston, which can easily double or triple its present truck load, or convert the hardly-used lower railroad bridge at Whirlpool Falls to a truck-only route (that bridge is in far better condition than the current Peace Bridge, is strong enough to handle the load, and could be converted at a fraction of the cost of building a new bridge here). Both those locations already have or can easily construct links to I190 on this side of the border and the QEW on the other.

— How soon will the old Peace Bridge, the one that they recommend be duplicated, have to be totally replaced: ten years, twenty years, thirty years? And how long will that second bridge construction at this location take? How much will it cost? How much disruption will it impose on the Buffalo community and on cross-border truck flow?

—Wouldn’t all the involved communities and industries be better served by a full environmental impact study that included the bridge and plaza as a complete system, and wouldn’t that be a far more responsible way to approach this whole issue from a professional engineering point of view?

Why PBA Didn’t Want The Engineers to Ask Those Questions
The PBA has fought very hard to keep this from ever becoming a regional discussion. They are in fierce competition with the three-bridge system in Niagara County. Except for the town of Fort Erie, which profits handsomely from the present situation, that competition does not serve any of the legitimate stakeholders well in any regard. But the PBA’s isolation does ensure the continued prosperity of the small group of well-paid contractors it hires to do hugely expensive maintenance on its decaying steel bridge and, if its plans are successful, on the new high-maintenance companion to it.

One experienced local politician said to me this week, “When you people talk about the concrete bridge being far cheaper to maintain you think you’re bringing up an advantage. To them it’s a disadvantage. They want a bridge that costs as much as possible to maintain. Think how many jobs they have to pass around. That’s what politics is all about.”

Another said the same thing another way, “The reason the PBA is fighting so hard to keep that old bridge is simple: if they go to a six-lane bridge other agencies will be involved and those agencies will demand to look at the books and the contracts and their sweet franchise will be jeopardized.”

What the Engineers Delivered
All in all, the consulting engineers delivered a thoroughly contemptuous and contemptible report. Contemptuous because it took no serious cognizance of any of the community issues raised over the past year, and contemptible because, at great cost, it merely provided a rationale for the conclusion the PBA has been trying to impose on the community all along. Much of it was predicated on numbers provided by the PBA itself, which is on a par with advising someone to buy a used-car on the basis of the salesman’s description of its internal condition.

They ignored nearly everything said in response to their preliminary report by members of the public, members of the Review Panel, and by people with far more experience in this kind of bridge construction than any one of them has. If you doubt that the substance of this report was determined before any of the recent hearings, notice how many times in the 100 pages (many of them charts, maps, and drawings) they refer to the “heritage” status of the present bridge. The present bridge doesn’t have any heritage status, a point made at the hearings by signature span advocate Ross Robinson (a Canadian) and by a Fort Erie official who had asserted the existence of such status on Tuesday, only to retract the claim in a letter to the Panel’s steering committee on Wednesday. Clearly, the consulting engineers were not going to have their conclusions obfuscated by data.

Those four firms are out of this now sorry affair but in case anyone is taking nominations for the Engineering Consultants’ Hall of Shame let me list their names one final time:

   Ammann & Whitney Consulting Engineers
   The Louis Berger Group, Inc.
   Parsons-Brinkerhoff Quade & Douglas, Inc.
   Buckland & Taylor Ltd.


The Calendar
The Panel planned to discuss and vote on the engineers’ report immediately after it arrived Friday, March 10. That would have allowed two full weeks before the March 27 date on which Judge Eugene Fahey had said he would announce his decision on the lawsuits filed against the PBA by the Episcopal Church Home, the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy, and the City of Buffalo. The report kept not arriving and the engineers kept silent about the problems they were having and when those problems might be resolved. The steering committee of the Review Panel began to worry that the judge would deliver his decision before anybody saw the engineers’ report, before the Panel voted, and before the PBA responded. That might have made the entire Consensus Review process a waste of time, which surely would have delighted the PBA.

During the week, Gail Johnstone, co-chair of the steering committee, informed Victor Martucci, chairman of the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority, that the report had not been delivered on time and that once it arrived the Panel intended to take up to the full two weeks it had been promised to consider it in their agreements last December and January. Her message may have been simply informative. It may also have had a strong implication: we’re not going to take the heat if the engineering team the PBA hired in a foot-dragging process that put this project on hold for two months is now trying to muddle the process again with another delaying tactic.

Two members the Panel told me that Martucci, in response, demanded a vote from the Panel in four days, but Judge Fahey would have none of that. On Thursday, March 16, while everybody was still waiting for the engineers’ report to arrive,  Judge Fahey revised his schedule so the delay wouldn’t cause unnecessary problems for any of the parties to the lawsuits. This is the new calendar:

Thursday, March 30: the Review Panel votes on the engineers’ recommendation
Tuesday, April 4: Judge Fahey, the litigants and their attorneys meet to hear the PBA’s reaction to the Panel’s vote
Wednesday, April 5: the PBA delivers its official response to judge
Friday, April 7: Unless something that happens on April 4 or 5 gives him reason to put things on hold one more time, Judge Fahey renders his decisions.

Cross-Border Con-Men
What would you say if I said, “Let’s be equal partners. You pay half a million bucks and I pay nothing”?

Yeah. Me, too.

That’s exactly the deal Canada and the US have in regard to bridge plaza facilities. The PBA and its Canadian supporters have been waving the flag of “new bridge, no tax dollars” at us for a long time now. It turns out what that really means is, no Canadian tax dollars, but lots of American tax dollars.

Here’s how it works. The United States government rents from the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Administration the space it needs for Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Customs Service and the Food and Drug Administration. It also pays rent on parking spaces. For that space, the PBA bills the US government $439,239.91 annually. Since 1984, the United States government has paid the PBA $5,316,170 in rent. The rent goes up or there is a lump sum payment whenever alterations are made.

(That information was provided to Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan in a letter dated March 16 from Thomas J. Ryan, Regional Administrator of the U.S. General Services Administration. Ryan’s letter was written because the PBA kept stonewalling Joe Crangle, representative of the Community Foundation on the Review Panel. On three separate occasions Crangle had asked the PBA for information about plaza costs and they wouldn’t tell him anything, so he asked Senator Moynihan’s office for help.)

The Canadian government has never paid anything for any of the far larger facilities on the Canadian side of this or any other border crossing with a toll. Nor has the Ontario government. Nor has the Fort Erie government. Nothing. Zero.

That is because the Canada Customs Act specifically makes it a free ride for the Canadians: “The owners or operator of (a) any international bridge or tunnel, for the use of which a toll or other charges is payable...shall provide, equip and maintain free of charge to Her Majesty at or near the bridge....adequate buildings, accommodation or other facilities for the proper detention and examination of imported goods or for the proper search of persons by customs officers.. .. The owner or operation of an international bridge or tunnel is liable for all reasonable costs incurred by the Minister....”

In ordinary English that means every year Americans pay almost a half million dollars at this bridge for services that are provided free to Canadians. It means when the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority brags about not using tax dollars it is bragging only about Canadian tax dollars, since American tax dollars are underwriting its plaza operations on this side of the border and everybody’s toll payments are paying the entire cost of the Canadian plaza.

That half-million is chickenfeed compared to what we’ll be paying once the new plaza is built. The rental rates Thomas J. Ryan reported to Senator Moynihan are for the old plaza and are specified in a lease that is 16 years old. The rent for the new plaza will increase to cover all the costs of all buildings and parking spaces used by any U.S. government agency. We don’t yet know what the total will be, but it certainly will be more than the new Rainbow Bridge plaza, where the GSA is currently paying $1.9 million per year, with increases of $200,000 in the annual payments every five years over the 30 year  lease period. There, too, the Canadian government pays nothing for the space, or parking or renovations: the entire $40 million for renovations to the Canadian plaza came from tolls.

The Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority is an international body—five Canadians, five Americans. Why are the five American members of that board willing to give all that American money to the Canadians in exchange for nothing, or nothing they are willing to tell us about? Why do they keep telling us that they run their bridge with no tax dollars when they know perfectly their operation is underwritten by American tax dollars?

We can’t blame the Canadian government for screwing us in this deal (or the town for Fort Erie for doing everything it can to keep the cash cow healthy). Every country has every right and even the obligation to get as good a deal as it can for its citizens. In this case the Canadians got and are getting a very good deal indeed.

The problem is with the five Americans on the PBA, who are party to this, and the several members of the New York state assembly and senate who give them blanket endorsements in everything they do and say. Not one of them ever told us about this gross imbalance and they have lied consistently to keep us from knowing about it.

You learn things like that and you have ask three questions:

     Who are they really representing?
     What do they get for it?
     What can be done to make them accountable to the public?
 

copyright 2000 Bruce Jackson
  

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