(Artvoice 1 June 2000)
Peace Bridge Chronicles
In Your Face on Memorial Day
by Bruce Jackson
Except for a flurry of press releases from several Canadian politicians who seem desperate to have a steel bridge built here (no matter that it takes longer to build and costs more to build and maintain) and what seems to have been a carefully-organized but embarrassingly-obvious letter-writing campaign to the Buffalo News, the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority and its cronies have been fairly quiet since Judge Eugene Fahey said in early April that the Authority had to obey New York environmental law.
They have been so quiet that Senator Charles Schumer was moved last week to bring Detroit’s Ambassador bridge development team back to town, the group that was here last year saying they’d like to put up a bridge with their own money and operate it as a private enterprise. In a two-hour meeting with interested citizens at the Adam’s Mark last Friday, they said they could deliver far better service than the PBA with the current bridge facility and they could design and develop a bridge really suited to the area’s traffic needs and the community’s environmental and ecological needs. All they needed was for the governments involved to pass legislation privatizing the binational operation.
They said if we gave them the franchise, they could get double the present number of trucks going across the river here within a few years, which would be great for the Canadian and American economies. They waffled when they were pressed to say what, if anything, the truck traffic would do for the economies of Buffalo and Fort Erie (other than that their Detroit experience showed more bridge traffic required more bridge workers). But, then, everyone else who has talked about the riches attendant upon increased cross-border truck traffic has waffled on that one too.
They said they’d made their pitch last year, then had stayed away while the Public Consensus Review Panel and Judge Fahey did their work. Now that the Panel found the PBA’s twin span idea defective and the Judge said it was illegal, they thought this was a good time for them to reintroduce themselves into the process. They several times alluded to mismanagement and missed opportunities by the PBA and its staff. Peace Bridge general operations manager Earl Rowe sat through this quietly. He never said anything and his face was neutral.
Schumer said he wasn’t a supporter of the Detroit plan so much as he was anxious to get things moving again. He several times talked about the PBA’s inability or refusal to do anything at all. He said he was a supporter of a signature span, but at this point he was starting to feel that design wasn’t as much of a problem as the PBA’s inability to get anything done.
Three days later, on Memorial Day afternoon, one of the heaviest US-bound auto traffic days of the year, the Peace Bridge staff showed that it was indeed capable of action. They shut down one of the bridge’s three lanes so four workers could do some minor maintenance. The lane remained closed to traffic even after the workers quit for the day. Cars were backed up for miles and many drivers experienced two-hour delays getting across.
Not one of the irate drivers who called me that afternoon to describe what was going on–or not going on–believed that the timing of the maintenance work was accidental. “They’re sticking it to us because they didn’t get their twin span,” one caller said.
This isn’t the first time in recent weeks a bridge lane has been closed down at peak hours for work that could as easily have been done at night, but since Monday was a major traffic day the work was certain to inconvenience a far greater number of people. The fact that all three lanes had been open earlier in the weekend indicates this was elective, not emergency, maintenance. All that traffic was backed up because someone in the Peace Bridge team wanted it backed up or didn’t care about the hundreds or thousands of drivers and passengers trapped in the cars on a hot holiday afternoon.
Most large cities around the country schedule elective maintenance work on roadways for late night on ordinary weekdays, hours when the reduced lanes will cause the least inconvenience to drivers.
Was this deliberate or accidental? If accidental, something should be done about bridge management because they don’t know what they’re doing. And if deliberate, something should be done about bridge management because they know exactly what they’re doing.
Maybe Senator Schumer is right: if the PBA can’t stop stalling, and if some people over there are making things worse just to punish us for refusing to let them have their way with the anachronistic and expensive steel twin span, maybe we should find a way to erase the blackboard and start over from scratch.