(Artvoice 30 March 2000)
Peace Bridge Chronicles:
The Vernal Peace Bridge Q&A
by Bruce Jackson
Where Things Are
The day this issue of Artvoice reaches the stands marks the end of the long investigative process begun last summer by the City of Buffalo, Erie County, the Community Foundation, and the Margaret L. Wendt Foundation. That process created the Public Consensus Review Panel, which hired engineers to evaluate several bridge and plaza options. The Panel met this morning and voted to reject the engineers’ recommendation
The Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority boycotted the panel until it seemed likely that Supreme Court Judge Eugene Fahey was going to rule against them in lawsuits filed by the City of Buffalo, the Episcopal Church Home and the Olmsted Conservancy. The PBA never did join in the Panel’s meetings or encounters with the public (though Panel member Natalie Harder of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership was ever sensitive to and articulate about the PBA’s interests), but they did hire two engineering firms to represent them in the technical evaluations.
The bi-national team of consulting engineers, as they came to be called, recommended moving the American plaza to the north of its present site and allowing the PBA to go ahead with the twin span bridge design it has advocated all along. The team also recommended an environmental impact study on the new plaza construction but not on the bridge itself. All the citizens’ groups opposing the PBA’s plans have urged a full environmental impact study, not the segmented version the PBA wants and the engineers recommended.
Some Panel members seemed worried that if the recommendation were rejected the PBA would keep its plaza where it is and would even try to consume more of Front Park. Other members pointed out that if the Panel rejected the recommendation, the City was still in a position to refuse to issue the construction permits and could continue withholding them until the PBA agreed to act like a responsible corporate citizen. If it didn’t go ahead with the new northern plaza plan its own engineers recommended, then it couldn’t begin construction on any bridge at all. The only member of the Review Panel to support the engineers’ recommendation for the twin span was Natalie Harder.
In a closed session in Judge Fahey’s chambers next Tuesday, the PBA is scheduled to tell the three litigants its response to the Panel’s vote on the engineers’ recommendation. Judge Fahey is scheduled to rule on all the pending lawsuits three days later. He might do nothing for the present or he might order the PBA to do a full nonsegmented environmental impact study before any ground is broken on any new projects this side of the river. The Episcopal Church Home and the Olmsted Conservancy might settle their suits against the PBA and the City might lose its will or nerve and back down. A big election is coming up, the PBA’s attorney is a major Democratic Party fundraiser, and we know no more now about the backroom aspects of this than we did a year ago.
So we’re at a key junction where things might go in any of several directions. It may be some time before anything is resolved.
Some Questions, Some Answers
And many questions continue to be asked, some of them answerable, some not. Last June, Artvoice published “The Great Summer Peace Bridge Q&A” (online at www.acsu.buffalo.edu/~bjackson/q&a.htm) in which we responded to 12 frequently asked questions about the Peace Bridge affair (e.g.: “Does the Peace Bridge make money?” “Who uses the Peace Bridge and what do they pay?” “Why are the lawsuits necessary?” “Why is the PBA so adamant about the companion span?” and so forth).
In the intervening months, we’ve learned more about the answers to some of those questions and we’ve heard many new ones. So, at this pivotal moment in the long decision-making process, we’re going to do another Q&A. Every question that follows was sent to us by email, US mail, or was asked over the phone or in a face-to-face conversation.
What does “signature bridge” mean?
A bridge that is not only functional but beautiful enough that it would be identified with the community it serves.
What is the PBA and what does it do?
The organization’s full name is the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority, though its agents and directors and the Buffalo News refer to it as “The Peace Bridge Authority” whenever possible. Most people refer to it as “the PBA,” which works equally well for those who want the “public” left in or kept out. The PBA was created in 1933 to operate the Peace Bridge after the initial owners got into financial difficulties when traffic dropped off because of the onset of the Depression and the end of Prohibition. It is a public benefit corporation created by the US government, the Canadian government, the Province of Ontario and the State of New York. No one I’ve talked to really knows what a public benefit corporation is, which is one reason the PBA gets away with so much mischief. The mission of the Authority is to oversee maintenance of the bridge and to set tolls at a level that will permit proper maintenance and service of bond debt. If it stopped there we would not be in the present mess.
What does the typical board member of the PBA do?
PBA board members decide who gets the maintenance contracts and how much they will be paid for that work. They set wages for bridge employees, amounts of pensions, terms of paid and unpaid leaves, and levels of staffing. They hire the principal operating officers—presently Stephen Mayer and Earl Rowe— and they tell those officers what to do. They decide when to float bonds and how much interest to pay and which brokers will get the very lucrative commissions on those bonds. They decide on construction necessary for the bridge operation and who will get the construction contracts. They select and hire consultants for various things. They make contracts with the people who run the duty free shops. They decide whether or not any of the bridge's spending will go out for bid. Sometimes they make public relations or land deals they think or claim are in the bridge's interest, such as spending more than $20 million to provide a skating rink and city hall (on Rte 3) and courthouse (at the corner of Jarvis and Central) for the Town of Fort Erie.
They also decide what kind of audits to have. They have an annual financial audit, which says whether or not accountants agree with their assertions about how they spent their money and what they have in the bank. They do not (so far as I know) permit or authorize management audits, which might indicate what people in their employ do or whether they do anything at all or whether they do it at all well.
The PBA’s ten board members also decide to commission and how much to pay for advertising, such as the recent television and radio campaign devoted to influencing the Public Consensus Review Panel and New York Supreme Court Judge Eugene Fahey. They also decide on special hires, such as the Albany lobbyist they recently set to work on behalf of the twin span.
Much of what they've done in recent years is secret, or at least what they've talked about is secret and how they've managed certain things are secret. They go into executive session a great deal now. Some of their recent minutes are nothing more than a call to order, a motion to go into executive session, a notice that they came out of it, and a motion to adjourn. Before this twin span issue came up they hardly ever went into executive session.
How do you get on the PBA?
All five Canadians are appointed by the Canadian Minister of Transport in Ottawa, and he tells them how to vote on all major issues. (None of them has any expertise in any aspect of bridge construction, operation or management, or social or ecological issues: two are lawyers, two are accountants and one is an eye surgeon.)
Two of the Americans are appointed by the governor of New York State, the other three serve ex officio–New York’s Attorney General and Director of Transportation, and the director of Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority. The Transportation seat is currently occupied by a political appointee, not by anyone in the Transportation department. Traditionally, the Attorney General’s seat is occupied by the director of the Attorney General’s Buffalo office, currently Barbra Kavenaugh. Her predecessor, appointed by Attorney General Dennis Vacco, a Republican, was the owner of a steel mill.
The American members of the Board used to be paid for their service but now they do it for free, or on time they’re being paid for by the state anyway. All five Canadian members get $100 per day (Canadian).
What happens to the PBA when the bond debt is paid off?
It dissolves and ownership and management of the bridge is transferred to the same transportation agencies in Ontario and New York that take care of other roads and most other bridges. There seems little danger of that happening. The PBA has regularly sought new bonding and has kept the debt large. With the construction of a new bridge and plaza there will be enough debt to keep the PBA going for the remainder of this century.
Why does Fort Erie do everything the PBA tells it to do?
A lifetime resident of Fort Erie said: “This is a small town. You throw $100,000 around and it’s a big deal. These people are throwing millions. The courthouse. The town hall. The double-surface rink. That’s $20 million in a town the total real estate assessment of which is maybe $58 million. If you were mayor what would you do when they told you they wanted something?” And another said, “The Bridge contributes to everything over here. Whatever Fort Erie wants, they get. And whatever the PBA wants, Fort Erie gives.”
What problem does this bridge and plaza construction project try to fix?
Auto traffic on the Peace Bridge has declined in recent years, truck traffic has nearly doubled and it will continue increasing–all as a result of NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement. The current bridge and plaza system was not prepared to handle all that truck traffic. The problem has been partly alleviated by construction of a processing center on the Canadian side that helps truckers get their paperwork in order so they aren’t held up on this side for merely technical reasons. Even so, some trucks are inspected and that takes time and they’re big so they take up a lot of space.
Will adding three lanes–in the form of a second three-lane bridge or a new six-lane bridge–solve the problem of congestion on the American side?
No, and no one thinks they will. The primary delay is from the truck processing, not the number of vehicles passing through. If there were no processing traffic would flow smoothly and there wouldn’t be any backups. Would that continue if truck traffic keeps growing at its present rate? Probably not. What happens if a car or truck breaks down even now? A mess. Much of the short-term problem would be solved if we could get more Customs and INS inspectors here, but that’s almost impossible. Most of those resources go to the southern border. The primary mission of US Customs Service has nothing to do with trade; it is the interdiction of drugs, and drugs mostly come in from the southern approaches. It’s unfortunate that our government prefers to pour resources into an intractable social problem perhaps best solved by other means and ignores a very tractable logistics problem easily solved by available means, but that’s how it is and–until all the northern border governors, senators and representatives start screaming and standing together on this–the situation won’t change.
Is a new bridge at the current site the only option?
No. There are at least two viable alternative solutions to the truck-flow problem.
One is to route the trucks across the Lewiston-Queenston bridge. The customs brokers would not lose any jobs; they’d either keep their operations here or they’d move them up to those two bridges. The negative impact on Buffalo’s economy would be minimal, and the positive impact on its environment would be significant.
Another option was suggested by the operators of Detroit’s Ambassador Bridge last November: build a new bridge adjacent to the railroad bridge a mile north of the Peace Bridge. There would be an easy connection to the I190 on the American side. On the Canadian side there is a wide swath of former railroad bed that provides a straight shot to the QEW, so constructing a connecting road there would require no displacement of residences and no meddling with archaeological ruins. The space is there, it is already cleared, it is unused.
The Ambassador group proposed a full-service bridge at that location, but what might make even more sense is to put a trucks-only bridge there. That would leave the present Peace Bridge functioning, until its condition deteriorated so much it had to be replaced. When the Peace Bridge was being repaired or replaced, automobile traffic could be diverted to the truck bridge; if that caused serious congestion problems, some of the truck traffic could be temporarily diverted to Lewiston-Queenston. Free of trucks, the Peace Bridge could shift its far smaller plaza into a northern location that would not require rerouting Niagara street and which would permit full restoration of Front Park and Fort Porter.
Buffalo wouldn’t get a signature bridge out of that kind of project, but neither would it have to endure ever increasing amounts of noxious fumes and traffic problems caused by the trucks landing in a residential area. I’m not recommending it—I’d like to see a signature bridge here and see no reason we couldn’t do one. But it’s important that we don’t get locked into the kind of either/or pattern the PBA keeps telling us is our only option. There are many options, and the full EIS might very well provide an opportunity to explore them honestly, which has not yet been attempted.
Was PBA Chairman Victor Martucci correct when he told the Review Panel and the Buffalo News that building the twin span now is “about jobs.”
Yes, he was. But hardly any of those jobs will go to workers in Erie County. Nearly all of them will go out of the state or out of the country.
The consulting engineers told the Review Panel that the old bridge would last another 75 years. Upon what data did they make that prediction and are they right?
They used data provided by the Public Bridge Authority and it is unlikely they are even close. “It is irresponsible simply to assume that the bridge is ready for another 75 or 100 years of use,”
Senator Daniel P. Moynihan said in a letter to Review Panel co-chair Gail Johnstone earlier this week.
In the lead paragraph of its March 28 front page story on the Bridge’s condition, the Buffalo News reported that “no one has taken an underwater look at its piers since 1996.” That’s all it was: a look. Someone on top stuck a camera under the surface. There has not been an real underwater inspection of the piers since a barge rammed the bridge more than 15 years ago. There hasn’t been an underwater inspection extensive enough to be included in the federal reporting since before 1981, though the condition of the piers is key to estimating maintenance costs and life span of the bridge. If those piers are deteriorating or are unstable–as some engineers insist—the maintenance costs would be enormous, the bridge would be out of commission a great deal of the time, and, like a tooth that looks okay on the surface but is rotted on the inside, would not be salvageable for the long term anyway. If you look at the piers, you can see deterioration at the waterline; there is almost certainly far more damage from the swift current beneath that.
The PBA’s engineers have predicted the cost of redecking the old bridge, but most bridge engineers say there is no way to predict those costs because no one knows what structural problems they will find once the current deck is peeled away. This bridge was built with the same kind of high-sulphur steel used to build the Titanic. It does not take welds well, which is why the entire Peace Bridge is held together with nuts and bolts. Repairs to such high-sulphur steel structures are far more difficult than to the easily-weldable steel used in recent decades.
The simple fact is this: all the numbers they’ve giving us are guesses at best-case minimums, and some of those are not believed by anyone but the PBA, if indeed even they believe their own numbers. No one knows how much the rehabilitation and maintenance cost will really be, or how long the bridge will survive.
But isn’t it true that the Federal Highway Administration rating for the Peace Bridge improved this year?
Yes, it went from a sufficiency rating of 17 (on a scale going from 1-100) in 1997 to 58.9 in 1998, a huge jump.
The change was based on ratings of three factors, each evaluated on a scale of 0-9): superstructure from 4 to 7, substructure from 3 to 6, and structural evaluation from 3 to 6. A 3 for substructure means “serious condition–loss of section, deterioration...local failures are possible” while a 6 is “satisfactory condition–structural elements show some minor deterioration.” A 3 in the structural evaluation is “basically intolerable requiring high priority of corrective action,” while a 6 is “equal to present minimum criteria.”
How did the bridge improve so radically in a single year? It didn’t; the only thing that changed from 1997 to 1998 were the numbers the PBA submitted to the FHA. The FHA ratings are based on self-reports; they don’t go out and do any inspections, they trust the bridge managers to tell them the truth and to be consistent in their reporting. The PBA improved its reported numbers by 100%.
This sudden improvement in reported condition with no improvement in fact reminds me of last December when Stephen F. Mayer, the PBA’s general operations manager, told the Review Panel that the construction plan they had said would take ten years would only take seven years. When asked where the three years went, Mayer said that they had recalculated the schedule.
The PBA says it doesn’t need any public money to build their bridge. Does it really have enough money to build the bridge and new plaza?
No. They are admittedly counting on US tax dollars to build the plaza and new access roads. Those no-tax-dollar claims have to do only with the bridge itself, and to do that they would need a large increase in their New York bond limit. State Assemblyman Sam Hoyt says he is going to block any such limit increase until the PBA starts acting like a responsible corporate citizen. Federal funds are available for this bridge construction project, but thus far the PBA has refused to apply for them because they would obligate the Authority to open its books and contract-letting practices to outside inspection.
The PBA has sufficient cash reserves to start building a twin span, but not to finish one, so there is serious question whether it could at present even get the bonds permissible under the current limit. Absent the assurance that the PBA can finish, those financiers won’t float the bonds, and absent that, all the PBA can do is start the bridge and then hope to blackmail the state into lifting the bond limit to get a half-finished eyesore done with.
So if they get the bond level raised, they could do the bridge without tax money?
No, not even then. That claim is a legal fiction understood by the manager of any non-profit institution with a federal or state tax exemption.
In real terms, tax exempt bonds are a government subsidy designed to help museums, schools and other public entities compete in the financial market. The tax exemption lets those organizations pay lower rates of interest on their bonds because the bond owners don’t have to pay taxes on the income. This is using tax money, whether or not a cent of public money ever changes hands. Neither are they paying property taxes on their bridge, buildings, or land. If they are not paying the same property taxes you and I pay, that means our tax dollars are underwriting their operation. They use tax money every day, and will continue to do so. It’s all a matter of where and how that support shows up in the books.
What will be the effect on Buffalo’s West Side if the PBA is allowed to proceed with its twin span plan?
A nightmare. According to the most recent traffic plans, for as few as four and as many as eight years, trucks will be rerouted along Niagara street, through Delaware Park on the Scajacwada Expressway , and out to the Thruway on the Kensington Expressway. That will not only clog traffic on those routes–neither of which was designed to be a major truck thoroughfare–but will also have detrimental effects on Delaware Park (if the joggers on the Ring Road are bothered by car exhausts now they’re going to need oxygen tanks once the trucks start slogging through the park), on housing values in the top-dollar locations bordering the Park, on access to the Albright-Knox, Burchfield Gallery, Historical Society, and Buffalo State College, and more. In general, the quality of life in that part of the West Side and the safety of road use on those two highways will be severely degraded.
The PBA says going to an environmental impact study now would set the project back two years. Is that fair?
Fair to whom? To the Buffalo community: sure it is. To the American taxpayers, who have been getting royally screwed by Her Majesty’s bridge laws on the other side, certainly. (The current arrangement specifies that all expenses for all Canadian government operations on bridge property be paid out of tolls, and all expenses for all American government operations be paid out of American taxes.) Had the PBA been willing to take part in a nonsegmented EIS three years ago when it was first urged on them, this would have been long over. It’s their evading tactics, not the community’s, that have caused the delay. We’re not the bad guys in this, no matter how much their smarmy television ads implied otherwise.
Furthermore, an EIS won’t take two years. It probably won’t even take a full year. They project that number only to argue that going to a six-lane signature bridge would delay things even more. Much of the work has already been done. If they’d stop stalling and evading the rest could be done fairly quickly.
What’s wrong with the Parker truss?
The truss–the big green boxy structure atop the part of the bridge crossing the Black Rock canal—was not part of the original design. That section was supposed to be like all the others with graceful curved support elements beneath the roadway. Then the builders were informed that the bridge had to clear the canal by 100 feet all the way across to provide clearance for the masts of larger sailing ships when then plied the Great Lakes. That meant the section had to be supported from above, rather than below, and it had to rise higher than had previously been thought necessary. The builders hated the truss and always thought it detracted from the beautiful design of repeating arcs crossing the river and canal. Washington officials are insisting that any new bridge continue to clear the canal by 100 feet even though no boats in operation nowadays need anything near that clearance. Their reason: “It might be needed in the future.” If it weren’t for that anachronistic height requirement, the bridge could be flatter and the design issues would be far simpler.
But whatever happens, the PBA will build the northern plaza and if they don’t build a signature span they’ll at least replace the Parker truss with something to match the companion span, right?
Wrong. If a court forces them to do it they will, but otherwise it is unlikely they will do anything but build a companion span.
Last week Mayer told WEBR reporter Mike Desmond what he had told the Review Panel last December: that the PBA would consider building a northern plaza when and if someone else gave the PBA all the money it needed to do the entire project. He added that someone would also have to get it though an EIS for them, otherwise the PBA has no intention of doing anything other than building its twin span.
Mayer also told Desmond there would be no determination about replacing the Parker truss on the old bridge until there was a satisfactory determination of its historical significance. What historical significance? The truss is an eyesore, a bureaucratic emendation to the original design. No one defended it in the past or defends it now, but all of a sudden the PBA is saying its historic value must be investigated. The only reason for that bit of flummery is obfuscation and delay. The fact that Mayer would say such nonsense to a reporter tells us that the PBA is still planning on building the bridge it has wanted to build all along, and that it plans plan to stall and stall and stall when it comes to doing anything else.
Which bridge system would be cheaper to build, become fully operational earlier, be less expensive to maintain over the next century, cause less disruption, and look better—twin span or six-lane prestressed concrete?
Six-lane prestressed concrete on all counts.
If it’s true that the companion span is the least efficient option , why does the Canadian Minister of Transport in Ottawa instruct his five delegates to the PBA to insist on it, and why do the five American delegates to the PBA follow their lead?
In part it’s because the politicians don’t want to renege on the deals that were made for who would get the lucrative steel construction and maintenance contracts. Part is an unadmitted but not insignificant measure of anti-Americanism makes the Canadians unduly resistant to alternatives coming from this side of the border. Part is that the Canadian members of the PBA arrive at their meetings knowing exactly how they’re going to vote that day and the Americans almost never do.
And then there is saving face and blockheadedness.
Never underestimate how far people will go to preserve face. Nearly a decade ago, the PBA assumed that the old bridge was of historical value and could not be torn down. They were wrong. Because of that assumption, they never gave any serious consideration to a six-lane bridge; they even excluded it when the first told their designers what to think about. By the time serious opposition arose, they were deeply committed to and identified with their design and feared they would look stupid if they acknowledged they had missed the obvious at the onset. The higher Canadian officials who had backed them because their plan seemed reasonable then, now backed them because they didn’t want to look foolish and incompetent either. They didn’t want to admit they had appointed a bunch of people with no competence to make a decision of this magnitude and had exercised no intelligent oversight when they locked the process down. A sad fact of politics is that politicians don’t just occupy their predecessors’ offices; all to often they choose to occupy their predecessors’ errors as well.
Why do they think they can get away with this?
Because they’ve gotten away with so much so often in the past.
Because they think we’re stupid.
Because they think if they stonewall long enough we’ll get tired and will give up.
Because they’ve got a lot of money to buy what they want and they think they’ll be able to buy the opinion they want here just as they bought it across the river.
They have so much money and they are so committed to their plan. Can they be stopped?
Yes. In the short term, it is important that the City of Buffalo not give up in weariness or because of other compelling issues or because of frustration.
In the long term, a solution may come from the courts. The courts may give the PBA and the Canadian government the excuse they need to work with this community rather than in opposition to it. For more than two decades a succession of Democrat and Republican governors refused to settle the Attica civil rights case, though any one of them could have done so, could have blamed it on Rockefeller, and could have pointed out that the settlement was far cheaper than the millions being spent on attorneys and staff defending the suit. Not one was willing to bite the bullet until a Federal appellate court said it was time to end this, whereupon the Pataki administration shrugged its shoulders, said okay, and settled. You can’t blame us for the Attica settlement, Pataki’s team seemed to say, the court is making us do it. No loss of face there.
And no loss of face here if a judge tells them they have to take part in a full EIS and if in the course of that process they realize that the six-lane signature bridge really is better and faster and cheaper. They can do the right thing, if they can find an excuse for doing it.
Here are nine questions we haven’t been able to answer. We’d very much like to hear from anyone who has specific information that would help us with any of them:
---What, if any, US interests does Congressman John LaFalce represent in this?
---What business or political interests caused the Buffalo Niagara-Partnership’s president Andrew Rudnick and development director Natalie Harder to consistently represent Canadian interests in the Peace Bridge affair?
---Why did the directors of the Buffalo Niagara-Partnership allow or encourage Andrew Rudnick to pursue with such vigor and for so long a policy that would cause this area to lose many jobs that would otherwise have come here?
---Why have New York Attorney General Spitzer and the head of his Buffalo office Barbra Kavenaugh, both of them signature span advocates a year ago, gone silent on the bridge issue?
---Was it legal for the PBA to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in an attempt to pressure the Public Consensus Review Panel and the litigants in Judge Eugene Fahey’s court?
---To whose drumbeat are the five American members marching and–given Governor Pataki’s and Attorney General Spitzer’s expressed support of the signature span—why are they doing it?
---Why would the mayor of Buffalo fence-sit about a project that thus far has promised only huge harm to his city?
---Why would anyone in a position of public responsibility want to route geometrically-expanding truck traffic into an urban area when there are other alternatives available?
---Given all the questions and concern and the dark veil of secrecy that in recent years has covered much of the PBA’s operations, why has the Buffalo News never used its large investigative reporting staff and great financial resources to look at any aspect of the Public Bridge Authority operation?