(Artvoice 25 November 1999)

A Matter of State:
Tom Toles, Wayne Redekop, Madeleine Albright, and the Niagara Border War

by Bruce Jackson
 
 

Perhaps the most lucid recent statement about what’s going on with the Canadian-American imbroglio over the Peace Bridge was Tom Toles’ November 14 cartoon in the Buffalo News. Toles drew a cockamamie bridge that combined all the past and present design ideas: cable-stayed on the right, steel-arched on the left, and topped dead center by a perfectly irrelevant and utterly useless Parker truss. Running the entire length of this goofy bridge is a thin frame supporting script letters that say “We don’t know what we’re doing.” A large caption across the lower part of the drawing identifies it as, “Our signature bridge.”

Everyone I know who saw that cartoon said Toles was once again right on the money. No one said, “Tom’s wrong this time.” Whatever side of the bridge question the speakers were on, they thought Tom got it right. Had almost anything else been written across the goofy bridge that consensus would have been great. With the script saying “We don’t know what we’re doing,” well, it’s not great. It’s screwy.

The Junior Senator from New York
The screwiest bridge moment of the past two weeks was maybe last Friday afternoon when Jack O’Donnell, Senator Charles Schumer’s Buffalo office chief, read a statement from the Senator to the Buffalo Common Council’s SuperSpan Signature Bridge Task Force. The senator said he regretted the refusal of the Public Bridge Review Panel to embrace the offer of Detroit’s Ambassador Bridge sales team that visited Buffalo earlier in the month. The Ambassador team had said that if we turned the bridge operation over to them, they’d provide a better and more efficient operation than we have now. All they asked in return was total control of the bridge, cooperation of all governments concerned in building roads wherever they wanted to locate whatever bridges they elected to put up, and no limit on what tolls they might collect and keep. Their president, Pat Stamper, said designing and building bridges weren’t difficult, all you had to do was write checks and hire people who knew how to do such things. (In a page one story last Sunday, the Buffalo News said the Detroit group had built the Ambassador bridge, but that’s not true. They’ve never built any bridge anywhere.)

Senator Schumer wrote, “Whether you support a signature span or a twin span, I think we can all agree that the discussions on the future of the Peace Bridge have reached somewhat of an impasse.” We can’t agree on anything of the kind. The Public Bridge Review Panel only last month got the Public Bridge Authority, the agency that maintains the Peace Bridge, to abide by the design recommendation endorsed by its executive committee. That selection process is now going on. It got off to a bumpy start because the PBA and Transport Canada squabbled over who would pay for the Canadian consulting engineers, but they worked that out and the engineers are off doing what consulting engineers do.

Why would Schumer want to sabotage the Public Bridge Review Panel? “I believe this plan merits our consideration as we work together to build a bridge for the next one hundred years,” he wrote. That’s the mantra of the Detroit pitchmen: “the next one hundred years.” Every time they make a presentation they say it over and over. Schumer’s been visited by the Detroit pitchmen and he’s picked up their lines.

The statement Jack O’Donnell read seemed sadly out-of-touch. One of the things that’s been really exciting about Schumer since he moved up from the House has been his presence in upstate affairs: he’s been a key player, for example, in the cruel airfare wars and his pressure has really helped us. But this time, it is as if his local information sources dried up so he was getting direction from the Detroit developers. Keep in mind that he didn’t join and he didn’t appoint a representative to the Review Panel in its key stages because he was pursuing a plan of his own. It was a good and thoughtful plan, but his advocacy of it kept him out of the conversation for months. It’s only recently that Jack O’Donnell has occupied the seat the Review Panel has kept open for Schumer since it was organized last summer.

“To turn this proposal down summarily makes no sense,” Schumer wrote. In fact, it makes a great deal of sense. There never was a viable proposal from Detroit, other than turn everything over to us and trust us. There was no plan for a bridge, no explanation of what would be done about the money, nothing other than a claim that they’d tuned up a badly managed bridge operation in Detroit and now wanted to take this one over as well, giving a single private family firm total control of the two key bridges at both ends of Lake Erie.

Chuck Schumer needs to start visiting Buffalo again. He shouldn’t be dancing to a drumbeat from Detroit.

Moynihan’s Man
Moynihan’s Buffalo office chief, Jim Kane,  has been involved in the Bridge issue from the beginning, which is hardly surprising given that Moynihan and Buffalo Common Council President James Pitts were the two officials who longest and loudest said we could do better than the twin span advocated by the PBA, the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, and the Buffalo News.

When O’Donnell finished reading Schumer’s statement, Kane addressed meatier matters. He’s fearful that the agreement signed by the Public Bridge Authority and the Review Panel last month will help the PBA continue to avoid an environmental impact study, which is the reason we’re in the mess we’re in now. Had the PBA done an EIS and involved the community in its plans, there never would have been need for the lawsuits filed against it by the city of Buffalo, the Episcopal Church Home and the Olmsted Society. “What  kind of model is this where you let them sidestep the EIS?” Kane asked. “You do an EIS. It’s the law of the land. You don’t give them a choice. Not doing it is against the law.” We’re all locked, Kane said, into a process started the other side of the river. Whatever the Canadian concerns are, he said, they don’t have the right to screw up an American city for their convenience. “They started a project on the Canadian side and they’re telling the American public you’re stuck. That’s not right. They can’t do that.”

Jim Kane is right, and that’s another reason this whole Detroit thing is a diversion. They’ve introduced nothing to our conversation except maybe an expression of outside greed and, as I wrote here last week, a neat summary of the key issues that had been raised by all the community groups and individuals involved in this difficult affair since the PBA went public with its twin span design a few years back. People will use the occasion of the Detroit offer to make speeches and get press, but the Detroit salesmen will soon be gone and we’ll be back to the real issues and the real players. Half of whom are across the Niagara River, a side that has been very very quiet through all of this.

What Fort Erie’s Mayor Wayne Redekop Said
That is why Fort Erie Mayor Wayne Redekop’s presentation to the Review Panel two weeks ago is so important. It is, so far as I know, the first time any Canadian official has been willing to make an extended position statement on the Peace Bridge expansion question, let alone answer questions about that statement. Because of that, we’ll quote from his remarks at length.

Redekop began by talking about Alonzo Mather who in 1893 “put together a visionary concept of a bridge to cross the Niagara River between Fort Erie and Buffalo, and that bridge provided for not only motorized vehicle traffic but also train traffic and pedestrian traffic and trolley traffic and that bridge was, many people would agree, years ahead of its time. In fact, it was so far ahead of its time that ten years after trying to get the approvals necessary to construct that bridge he gave up. It was a senator from New York State who had interests in the hydroelectricity generating in Niagara Falls who was able to stymie construction of that bridge primarily. And it wasn’t until 1923 that a group of people on both sides of the river came together because by that time it was absolutely imperative that Buffalo in particular and Fort Erie as well to have a fixed link across that river. As we all know, in 1927 construction was completed with respect to that bridge. I fear that we’re in the middle of a similar process now at the end of the 20th century and I’m concerned that what happened in 1893 to 1903 is going to happen now to 2003.”

(What analogy was he making? That Americans were again screwing up a grand Canadian idea that’s ahead of its time, and they’re doing it for venal and personal reasons? Or was he saying, You Americans screwed us at the end of the 19th century and we’re doing it to you at the end of the 20th?)

“I grew up in Fort Erie and for me there are three major landmarks that Fort Erie has. Those are symbols that identify our community to people from other parts of our country and perhaps from other parts of your country: the racetrack, which has been on its site since 1898; the old British fort . It’s called ‘Historic Fort Erie,’ but if you grew up in Fort Erie you called it ‘the old fort.’ The one that’s there was constructed during the Depression but it’s based on a fort that was constructed in 1812 and quite coincidentally destroyed by the Americans in 1814. And then of course we have the Peace Bridge, which is a symbol of peace and the nature of the relationship between our two countries and it’s been in existence for over 70 years. ...Those symbols help to define my community and for people like me every day that I’m in Fort Erie, literally almost every day that I’m in Fort Erie, I come in contact with that bridge. I see the bridge, I pass the bridge, sometimes I cross over the bridge. I’m not untypical of the people that live in the eastern part of the town of Fort Erie. So for us, it’s a real symbol, it’s part of our past, part of our story about who we are and how we got to where we are.”

(More important than symbols, Redekop said, is how fast trucks and cars can get through Buffalo and Fort Erie:)

“People don’t care if Fort Erie is a nice little town. People don’t care if Buffalo was a magnificent center 50 or 60 or 100 years ago. It doesn’t make any difference whether you’ve got some magnificent rate architecture here, a first rate museum, it doesn’t matter. What matters is how quickly can we get from point A to point B. And if you’re manufacturing goods in Toronto and you want to get them into the United States all you’re concerned about is ‘What is the fastest and the cheapest route I can take.’  And I fear that we’re going to lose the opportunity to retain and expand the trade that’s coming out of the Golden Horseshoe both ways in crossing the river at Buffalo.

“It’s the same thing with tourists. Tourists don’t want to sit in line on a hot summer day, even if they’ve got air conditioning, particularly if they’ve got children in the care bouncing off the roof. They want to get from where they’ve come to where they’re going and they want to get there as quickly as possible.

“ So our concern in Fort Erie is every day we don’t have expanded capacity on the bridge, whatever the bridge looks like, we lose opportunity. The opportunity that we lose is revenue, investment, jobs. We’re losing them, you’re losing them. In other words, our future prosperity is at risk. The prosperity of Fort Erie and Buffalo, the Niagara region, western New York,, Ontario, New York State. It’s that simple. And that’s a major concern for us.

“The Peace Bridge Authority has a plan and the plan is ready to go.”

(For a moment he seemed to abandon local aesthetics entirely:) “When I go from Fort Erie to Buffalo, it really doesn’t matter what the bridge looks like. I could care less, to be perfectly honest with you.” (But then he reversed himself and went back to where he’d begun:) “It has an attractiveness to me. ....It is a symbol. One of the concerns we have in Fort Erie is that we have this nagging suspicion that whatever bridge is constructed, if it’s a signature bridge or a superspan or some other magnificent structure  that equates to the demolition of the Peace Bridge, and that is a major concern. Because we consider that to be not only to be a symbol and a landmark, but it’s a heritage symbol and a heritage landmark. And the notion that you’re going to keep that peace bridge for a bike path or a recreation trail, we just don’t believe that. We think that what you’re talking about is putting up a monument to something other than what we cherish....

“We have a Peace Bridge plan that, aesthetics aside, meets the requirements of the residents of Fort Erie. We can get across the twin span and the existing Peace Bridge safely, efficiently and affordable, that and that’s important to commercial traffic: affordability....

“It is a plan, it’s a known plan, it’s a plan that’s ready to go, and all the ducks primarily are in order. That bridge could have started construction earlier this year, but it hasn’t. And it’s been delayed by a process in 1998. I participated then in a process that the Buffalo Partnership conducted. And it’s being delayed by this process. That’s fair enough. I understand that people’s needs and concerns have to be addressed, I don’t begrudge them that. I certainly don’t begrudge the people in Buffalo wanting to be satisfied what’s being done in their community because I’m concerned with what’s done in my community. But you can’t just pick up the plans and say okay we’ll move the plaza here, there or whatever....

“Time is money and every day that goes by that we don’t expand the Peace Bridge capacity we lose opportunity. And once those opportunities are gone, once the manufacturers in Toronto decide that they’re going to ship through Windsor, they’re not going to go back through Fort Erie and Buffalo once we get our act organized whether it’s five years from now or ten years from now or twenty years from now.”

The Mayor and the Audience
When the mayor finished his prepared statement someone in the audience asked, “If the plan that comes out of this panel’s work is faster and cheaper than the PBA’s, will you support it?”

He said he hadn’t seen a plan with hard numbers so he couldn’t respond. “I’m open-minded, I like to think that I’m open-minded. I like to think I’m a realist. On the other hand I like to think I’m a bit of a poet and I’d like to see something significant done. But it doesn’t matter to me. You can run the risk of losing economic opportunity and future prosperity or you can have a nice fancy bridge somewhere, someday. Well, My choice is economic growth prosperity now and the rest of the stuff will take care of itself. You know, a bridge across a river does not define a community. It doesn’t say that Buffalo will be a better place because you have a signature bridge. That’s just about the goofiest notion I’ve ever heard. Just like the notion that people will travel long distances to see a bridge. That doesn’t make any sense to me either.”

Someone else asked if he or his delegates would join the Review Panel. He said this was an American problem, he had no interest in it, and he was too busy with local affairs on his side of the river to get involved with it. “The Peace Bridge Authority has a plan. We’ve gone through a process. I participated in the process last year that the Buffalo Partnership operated. Thought that this thing was finished. I can’t do this indefinitely.... You’re the people that have to sort through this. The bridge does land in two countries. We don’t have a problem. We’re at peace in Fort Erie and Niagara. We’re at peace. You’re not. I’d like to help you to sort that out and I think I’ve done that by giving you at least some understanding of how we feel about this and how we feel that our prosperity is tied to yours and how the delays are going to affect both of our communities.”

So it came down to an icon that couldn’t be changed from their side, commercial traffic to distant places that had to be accelerated, and a plan that couldn’t be improved upon. Redekop’s bottom line was, there was no need to do anything other than what the Public Bridge Authority said should be done.

When he was done answering questions from the panel and audience, I followed him into the corridor, hoping to ask a few questions about what he’d just said. But a mid-thirtyish beery guy had him cornered. The guy was hammering at him, shouting that he has his rights to something or other. Redekop said “You can write whatever you like.” The guy said, “Goddamned right I do. So what makes you think your rights should come before mine? I have my rights!”  It was just awful. The guy was either drunk or performing for two of his friends, who were standing nearby and seeming to nod encouragingly. I wanted to apologize to Redekop for the abandonment of civility, but he moved out of the building fairly quickly after that. He went back home to his own country.

A Matter of State
What can we do when our partners the other side of the border won’t listen to, don’t understand, or don’t care about our concerns?

How can a citizens’ panel on this side of the border, whatever its decency and good intentions and competence, have any influence on an international construction project if the other side of the border won’t come out and talk, won’t express any good will whatsoever, doesn’t care?

It can’t.

How can the mayor of Buffalo influence the mayor of Fort Erie if the mayor of Fort Erie won’t pay attention to any of the questions that matter this side of the border?

He can’t.

The Peace Bridge, as Mayor Redekop so eloquently pointed out, is one object but it has very different meanings on the two sides of the Niagara River. Failure to understand those differences means more waste–not just of construction time and money as now, but of human resources, which are more valuable than either. Just because people use the same words doesn’t mean they’re always speaking the same language.

I no longer think the real failure here is entirely local. The Public Bridge Authority screwed us all, but the responsibility doesn’t stop there. This is an international affair, a major disagreement in border policy between two countries. The officials on the Canadian side, from the mayor of a small town up to a cabinet minister, are turning deaf ears to officials and the public on the American side, from the people of Buffalo up to our representatives in the United States Senate.

It’s a stalemate: the Canadians won’t consider anything that might alter the operation of their truck stops, duty free shop, brokerage houses  and other jobs for half of Fort Erie’s employed adults, and we’ll keep going to court to keep them from forcing on us a bridge that makes life here worse than it already is.

The sharks from Detroit maybe had part of it right: perhaps we do need outsiders to help us resolve this issue. If the PBA isn’t going to honor its agreement with the Review Panel (as its chairman John Lopinski recently suggested) and if the town of Fort Erie is going to oppose anything that changes anything, then we do need outside help. But the outside help shouldn’t come from secretive millionaires from Grosse Pointe who never give interviews. It should come from our government officials specifically charged with handling international affairs. Mayors can’t do that, congressmen can’t do that, senators can’t do that, and Review Panels can’t do that. This is what we have national governments for.

It’s time for Madeleine Albright to look north and face the fact that all troublesome borders aren’t halfway around the world. The Canadians are making economic war on us here in Buffalo. You can bet that Canada’s foreign ministry has been very much involved in this affair from the beginning; indeed, all their representatives to the Public Bridge Authority are appointees of the Canadian national government, not the Province of Ontario. How about our State Department telling them that instead of making war it’s time to play ball?

The Ragged Edges of Democracy
Redekop and other Canadian officials have complained about the interference by the city of Buffalo, various citizens’ groups, and the Public Bridge Review Panel in the smooth process planned by the PBA. They’re right: those groups have slowed things down, and a good thing it is.

Autocracy and dictatorships are fast and efficient: in those systems the boys in the closed rooms decide what’s going to be done and then they go and do it. If they’re benevolent and wise the public isn’t hurt too much; if they’re not benevolent or wise the public is hurt a great deal. Mussolini got the trains to run on time—and he nearly destroyed Italy.

Democracy is inefficient. It’s ragged at the edges. It’s not simple. So what? Why are velocity and smooth edges and a single voice any better? That’s what Wayne Redekop is saying, it’s what Dan Stamper and his Detroit sales team would have us believe and it seems to be what Senator Schumer is now thinking. I’d say to them all: relax. The Public Review Panel is moving forward; the Common Council’s Task Force is watchdogging the Panel. Will there be time to do it all? I don’t know, and neither does anyone else. But before we jump ship, let’s see if the ship stays afloat.

One thing is clear: after the Review Panel announces its choice of bridge design, we’ll have to take a long and hard look at the operation and constitution of the Public Bridge Authority. We’d have none of this mess if it had been willing to act as a public agency from the beginning, if it hadn’t engaged in phoney segmentation to avoid the EIS required by law. We shouldn’t have to go to court every time we want that public agency to act lawfully. If that agency is structured so it can get away with this callous disregard for the people and the law, then that agency has to be restructured. On both sides of this contentious border.


Bruce Jackson is Artvoice’s international affairs correspondent.
 
 

copyright 1999 Bruce Jackson

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