(Artvoice 24 May 2000)
Peace Bridge Chronicles
A Report from the Front
by Bruce Jackson
WHERE THINGS ARE
Things are quiet in the Peace Bridge War right now. We won’t know until later whether this is merely a lull in the battle or the attenuation of noise that signals a real end to hostilities.
There was a lot of bluster and frothing from the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority (PBA) immediately after the Public Consensus Review Panel’s March 30 vote, which accepted the consulting engineers’ recommendation for a new plaza north of the current plaza, but rejected the engineers’ recommendation that a three-lane steel companion bridge was preferable to a six-lane concrete bridge.
The engineers tried to satisfy two political entities—New York and Fort Erie: they gave Buffalo a decent plaza and Fort Erie a second bridge. Several members of the Review Panel pointed out that the engineers’ recommendation for a twin span was contradicted by the engineers’ own data earlier in the same report. That data said the twin span and necessary rehabilitation of the current bridge would take longer and cost more than building an entirely new six-lane bridge, and that in the long run the six lane bridge would be far cheaper to maintain. Panelists also pointed out that the consulting engineers had been asked for a technical, not a political, recommendation.
At a press conference the following day, PBA chairman Victor Martucci said the Review Panel didn’t have the authority to make its own recommendation because it had signed an agreement with the PBA that it would do nothing but vote on the engineers’ report. The Review Panel had signed no such statement.
A week later, on April 7, New York Supreme Court Justice Eugene Fahey ruled that New York environmental law required a full environmental impact study of any major bridge and plaza construction. The PBA’s claim that it could commence and finish construction of a twin span faster than anyone could commence and finish construction of a six-lane bridge died right there. If they had to obey the law, then all bridge designs had the same starting line and all the hoopla about getting more trucks across the border faster was meaningless. (It was never true anyway, since all their rhetoric was about the start of construction, never the completion of it.)
PBA attorneys said they were unhappy with the decision and the PBA would decide at its next meeting whether or not to appeal. Several senior Canadian officials urged the PBA to appeal immediately; none of those statements acknowledged the existence of New York environmental law or the fact that the PBA had as many American as Canadian members.
One prominent Buffalo corporate attorney said to me, “They have to file an appeal just to save face. But if they have any brains they won’t pursue the appeal. Fahey’s a scholarly judge and that’s a very well-grounded opinion. If they actually pursue an appeal they’ll just waste two more years and they’ll lose anyway.”
“So why bother filing at all?” I asked.
“So they have some leverage at the next stage.”
“To get what?”
“I haven’t any idea. I don’t know if they do either.”
A week later, the executive board of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, an organization that had long supported the twin span idea, decided that Judge Fahey’s ruling meant it was time to alter course and to support a six-lane concrete bridge plan. Several members of the Partnership board later said they thought filing an appeal of Judge Fahey’s ruling would be pointless and time-wasting. “We sent the PBA a message saying that,” one board member said to me.
To date, the PBA hasn’t done much of anything in response to the Review Panel recommendation and the judge’s decision---at least nothing admitted in public. There have been vague threats that there will be no new bridge at all, that the truck traffic will be routed elsewhere (oh, punish us, punish us!). A truck driver phoned Artvoice on his cell phone a few weeks ago to say that the traffic jams on the bridge were worse and he was convinced it was a deliberate slowdown to put pressure on the Americans to give in. One lane is currently closed for some heretofore unannounced cleanup work and large signs on the Canadian side proclaim “EXPECT DELAYS.” Are those delays really necessary or are they just more of what that truck driver was suggesting? One sad result of all the indirection and misdirection in the past is, it is difficult for most of us to take anything that happens there at face value any more.
WAS THE WAR OF IT ANY USE?
First, we probably won’t have that ugly twin span to look at, we won’t have huge trucks rumbling through Delaware Park for six years, and we’ll probably attain full six-lane functionality far more quickly and cheaply.
Second, we learned important lessons.
One of the first things County Executive Joel Giambra did when he took office was put county involvement in any new convention center on hold until completion of a full environmental impact study—which includes citizen involvement. He might have done that anyway even if he hadn’t seen the unnecessary anger, frustration, expense, and delay caused by an agency trying to impose an unwanted project under false pretenses. But having seen those things he wasn’t about to stumble into the same swamp.
Planners, engineers, and developers in other cities have taken the message as well. (It’s like after the 1971 bloodbath at Attica: no prison disturbance since then has been settled by slaughter and torture.) I doubt that anyone in the construction industry is unaware of what happened at the Peace Bridge, and I doubt that any competent planner doesn’t think about ways of avoiding this kind of mess.
We don’t have to go far for examples. The New York State Department of Transportation is doing major construction work on route I-490 in Rochester. Part of that project consists of replacement of the Troup-Howell Bridge, which crosses the Genessee River in downtown Rochester. The city told the engineers it wanted a “signature style” bridge. Howard Reffel, the project design engineer and an employee for DOT, said they developed several models and figured which might work within physical and budgetary constraints. These were presented to the public. The Rochester newspaper paid little attention during this phase of the process (sound familiar?) so DOT worked hard getting out word of its public hearings and meetings through other channels. They set up an Aesthetics Committee composed of representatives of local government, artists, the landmark society, and other community groups. They listened to input, developed alternatives in a design workshop and presented them. There still was almost nothing in the Rochester paper about the project, and no editorial commentary at all (sound familiar?). The main thing was letting people know what was going on, giving various constituencies a real chance to provide information that was taken seriously.
After Reffel described all those steps to involve the community in the project I asked him if he had been aware of what had happened at the Peace Bridge. “Of course,” he said. I asked if what happened here had influenced what they did there. “Sure,” he said, “but what we did was the right thing to do anyway.” So it is.
WHAT HAPPENS NOW?
I haven’t been able to find out if the PBA is sulking, licking its wounds and resting up, laying low in the hope that the New Millennium Group Bridge Action Committee will get bored and will go on to something else, or is in stasis because it’s experiencing a stalemate between the five American and five Canadian members. I suppose someday soon we’ll see a puff of white smoke over their office at what used to be part of Front Park and someone will come out and tell us.
(The Detroit bridge developers are back in Buffalo this week. Senator Charles Schumer invited them--"to stir up the pot," he said.)
We’ll have to wait and see what the PBA does. Whatever they do, there are some long-range change we should begin thinking about.
LET THE SUNSHINE IN
This mess might not have happened if the PBA weren’t allowed to operate in secret. There’s no reason for it to operate in secret. It’s job is to maintain a bridge, not national security.
The PBA avoids the sunshine laws and freedom of information laws that make most actions of nearly all public agencies accessible to the public. The rationale is, the PBA is an international agency, not a state agency, so it is therefore not subject to New York State’s public access laws. I don’t buy that argument. The PBA is in part a creature of the New York legislature, it is tax exempt and can issue bonds because of acts of the New York legislature, so why can’t it be subject to rules made by the New York legislature?
The usual reply to that is, “Because the New York legislature cannot make rules that bind Canadians,” We don’t have to bind Canadians. Our rules will just bind the American members of the PBA. The New York legislature should pass a law saying that the American members of the PBA can no longer operate in secret. If the Canadians don’t like it, they can stay home from those meetings. There is no reason American citizens should be penalized because the Canadian government doesn’t give its citizens the same access to information and protection from governmental abuse that our laws provide. (And if they do have the same protections, then let them agree to the change as well.)
Another argument against introducing sunshine is, the US can’t unilaterally set up conditions on this binational agency. That’s also nonsense: the Canadian government set up a condition without consulting us when it decided that all expenses for housing the offices of all Canadian officials connected with border bridges and tunnels had to come out of toll revenues, not taxes. American officials occupying similar space on the American side are forced to pay rent. Every year, American taxpayers pay millions and millions of dollars for services Canadian taxpayers get for free. Did any American legislative body ever get consulted on that ripoff? Of course not. If the Canadians can rip us off for millions of dollars every year, what prevents us from making sure that our representatives to border agencies obey US law?
THE PBA’S DEFECTIVE COMPOSITION
The Peace Bridge was official opened August 7, 1927. It was built by a private corporation headed by Frank B. Baird. The Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Commission, a public benefit corporation created by the United States, Ontario and New York governments, took over in 1933 when the Depression and the end of Prohibition drove the private corporation to the brink of bankruptcy. The original membership was 6 Americans and 3 Canadians, I think to reflect the much greater American investment in construction of the bridge. In 1957, New York created the Niagara Frontier Port Authority and tried to make the Bridge Commission part of it. The primary reason for that was to grab the large amount of cash the bridge had in the bank. The bi-national Bridge Commission refused to be eaten by a State agency. After some legal wrangling, there were four changes:
—the membership of the board was increased to ten, five from each country
—the bridge would be tied to no other agency, it would be fully independent
—the two countries would divide excess revenues equally
—the sunset, the date when all bridge assets would be turned over to the two governments to be run as part of ordinary state and province facilities, was extended to 1992.
The turnover never happened because the PBA kept getting more debt and it was guaranteed existence as long as it had debt. The revenues were never divided equally because of the Canadian rental ripoff I described above. The PBA has remained independent of other agencies, but it has not remained free of politics.
Two of the American delegates are appointed by the governor and three serve ex officio: the head of the NFTA, the director of the New York Department of Transportation, and the New York Attorney General. The three ex officio board members frequently are represented by designees: the Attorney General usually appoints the head of the Buffalo office, for example. Sometimes the governor gobbles up both the Attorney General and Transportation slots and gives them to political friends. All five Canadian members of the PBA are appointed by a single federal official: the Minister of Transport in Ottawa.
Some observers are convinced that the most compelling reason for the unified Canadian support for the steel companion bridge in Canada has only marginally to do with cross-border traffic and aesthetics, but is primarily grounded in political patronage: Canadian steel companies were promised that job six years ago and they’re not letting go. Maintenance of a steel bridge is three to five times maintenance of a concrete bridge and the people who have or expect those contracts are probably in the political process as well.
WHAT TO DO ABOUT THAT?
We’ll never get the PBA fully out of politics. Politicians and cash cows like that are bonded body and soul with Crazy Glue. And we can’t do anything about the control of all five Canadian members by a single political party and officer. But we can expand participation on the American side.
I wouldn’t mind those people having their sweetheart contracts and whatever else they get to rake off if they just wouldn’t screw us in the process. We need at least one person on that board who will in all likelihood have some interest in the city of Buffalo. At present, we don’t have that, or at least we have no evidence of it.
So make two changes in the legislation:
—Make sure that the seats of the Attorney General and Director of Transportation aren’t assigned to political cronies having no legitimate position in either agency.
— More important, take one of the governor’s appointees away and let that seat go to someone appointed by a committee composed of representatives of Buffalo, Erie County, the Olmsted Society, the EPA and whoever else has a point of view and legitimate concern not represented now.
If those two simple things were done—let the sunshine in and give the people a seat at the table—then some of the abuses and abominations we’ve seen and suffered will be less likely in the future. That doesn’t mean everything will go perfectly. Everything hardly ever goes perfectly. But at least we’ll have a shot at decency next time around.