(Artvoice 3 August)
Peace Bridge Chronicles #39
The PBA as Pinocchio:
Lying on the Web
by Bruce Jackson
You've perhaps heard of Mary McCarthy's famous comment on the Dick Cavett show about Lilian Hellman: "Every word that Hellman wrote was a lie, including 'and' and 'the.'" Hellman sued her for the comment but it never came to court because McCarthy died while it was still in process. Too bad because she had solid evidence on her side, the most notable having to do with Hellman's autobiographical Pentimento, part of which was made into the film Julia, starring Vanessa Redgrave as Julia and Jane Fonda as Hellman. The real Julia was a woman named Muriel Gardner who always insisted she'd never met Hellman. She was about to initiate her own lawsuit, but Hellman died, mooting that out, as they say.
I thought about all of this when I looked through the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority FAQ page on their website. FAQs are common interfaces in the web age: they give corporations and other institutions a way to post the answers to frequently-asked questions (hence FAQ) so they're not wasting time providing the same information again and again and so the public can have easy access to the questions other people are asking.
Some FAQs--like the PBA's---aren't really FAQs at all. They're composed not so much of questions a lot of people ask, but rather questions the company wishes a lot of people would ask so they could get to say the things they want said without it seeming like what it really is: a public relations screed.
The basic difficulty with all FAQs is a problem endemic to the web: there's no check on erroneous or deliberately misleading information. To trust information from the web you either have to know enough about the source to trust it, or you have to have enough collateral information from other reliable sources to check what you're reading.
Generally, corporations don't put up pages of lies. They may put up fluff, but they avoid flat-out lying because it's too easy for people who know something to annotate those pages and circulate them to other people to show the authors up for the liars they are. But sometimes corporations think the public is so stupid they can say whatever they want and get away with it, or they have such contempt for the public they don't care about being caught out. I don't know which is the case with the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority--contempt for our intelligence or contempt for our opinion. But it's surely one of the two. Or maybe both.
I'm not saying everything on the PBA web site is a flat-out lie or a serious distortion of the truth. There is no problem with names because the web site does not list the names of any members of the Authority, and, except for incidental mention in four press releases, the names or titles of any members of the staff. The entire web site provides only four telephone numbers: two numbers to help you get trucks and cars through Customs and the office phone numbers of the PBA's Canadian and American press agents. The map showing the location of the bridge seems to be right and so is the description of what goes on at the commercial vehicle processing center in Fort Erie. I'm sure the toll schedule is correct. After that, things get slippery. By the time you get to the FAQ www.peacebridge.com/ecfaq.html), it's time to hold on to your wallets and keep your eye on the silverware.
That's all description. Lets look at the half-truths and lies they hope you and the various legislators voting on their proposals and judges voting on their lawsuits read and accept as gospel:
Why is there a need to build a new bridge at all?
This is an issue of trade, tourism and traffic between Canada and the United States. The Peace Bridge is the economic link between the two countries.
All studies about traffic patterns show that heavy truck traffic stifles tourist traffic. If they want to encourage tourists coming across the Peace Bridge they should route the trucks elsewhere.
More important, this isn't the economic link between the two countries anyway (oh, Mary McCarthy--dash;I finally understand what you mean about lying with the definite article). There are three other motor vehicle bridges within 20 miles of Buffalo, and five more further east of us in New York State. The two countries are linked by about 80 fully functional border truck crossings and an equal number of commercial railroad crossings in Washington, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, Michigan, New York, Vermont and Maine. The Department of Transportation statistics bundle crossings in a metropolitan area--Buffalo-Niagara is counted a single crossing, for example, even though there are four vehicle bridges and two international railroad bridges here--so the actual number of truck bridges and commercial goods railroad lines is greater. (You can see the US Department of Transportation map of those ports and find links to commercial crossings online at http://www.bts.gov/programs/itt/cross/ports/port.html. )
LIE # 2:
What is Continental 1? What is the Peace Bridge link?
The Continental 1 corridor, developed to encourage trade and tourism between Miami and Toronto is relying on the completion of a new bridge so that trade traffic is not rerouted to other areas of the U.S. and other areas of the Province of Ontario. If the bridge is not started soon, the stream of international trade will be negatively affected by increasing the time taken and the cost of carrying goods. Truckers and tourists will be hurt. Jobs in both countries will be negatively affected, but particularly in the Niagara and Western New York area.
It's true that if there isn't easy flow between Canada and US, shipping goods back and forth will cost more. It isn't the least bit true that if a new bridge isn't built in this one place that "truckers and tourists will be hurt" (truckers will truck wherever the bridges are, they'll be paid in any case, and Continental 1 has nothing to do with tourists), or that "jobs in both countries will be negatively affected" (the jobs would be equally well served by a bridge expansion at any of several other locations) or that the effect will be particularly severe in this area (hardly any of the jobs resulting from bridge expansion will come here, except for jobs at the Peace Bridge itself and patronage jobs handed out by Peace Bridge management).
Why is it important to build a bridge now?
As an economic catalyst for the region, it is vital that Buffalo and Fort Erie move quickly to prosper from this explosion of trade and commerce between the U.S. and Canada. The opportunity for job and tourism increases will be forfeited as well as the opportunity to grow this region into a vibrant gateway for both countries.
Tourism, again, is negatively effected by the glut of trucks. Very few jobs will come to this area as a result of the increase in truck traffic, except perhaps pulmonary surgeons to deal with the almost-certain increase in lung cancer, emphysema, asthma, and other respiratory diseases.
What is the Peace Bridge Authority's proposal?
The Peace Bridge Authority's proposal is to build another 3 lane bridge that would act as a companion to the existing bridge. This design is affordable, can be built immediately and has the ability to ensure traffic continues to flow even under maintenance conditions. The Peace Bridge would have liked to begin construction on the companion span in July 2000. The new bridge would have been completed in 2003.
Upon completion of the new bridge, the existing Peace Bridge will undergo maintenance and redecking. Upon completion there will be an immediate doubling of capacity.
It is indeed true that, if they were allowed to build the twin span and then set about rehabilitating the old bridge they would have, at the end, "an immediate doubling of capacity." They fail to mention that such rehabilitation is eight to ten years away, and so, therefore, is the "immediate doubling of capacity."
The companion bridge can be built immediately only if the PBA is allowed to build it in total contravention of New York environmental law, which Judge Eugene Fahey told them on April 3 they could not do. A lot of things would be easier or more profitable if you didn't have to obey the law; every crook I know is fully aware of that. The new bridge would have been completed in 2003 only if the PBA had been allowed to ignore environmental law and if everyone in Western New York had said, "Okay" to whatever the PBA proposed. Once questions about environment, traffic flow, encroachment and such were introduced, that schedule was out the window.
Why are two bridges better than one?
A key reason the Peace Bridge Authority's companion span option makes sense is that the new span will require minimal traffic disruption and construction phasing, thereby allowing for essentially unaffected and unimpeded use of the existing bridge during construction. Having two bridges ensures that traffic will always be able to flow in both directions.
The twin span project will cause far more traffic disruption during its construction phase than a six-lane substitute bridge. A six-lane bridge can be built with no significant rerouting of traffic. The day it is finished, as both Bruno Freschi and Eugene Figg said, you open up the new bridge and you shut down the old bridge. The PBA's plan of building a new bridge, then shutting down the old bridge for years of rehabilitation, will require up to seven years of routing trucks through Buffalo streets and Delaware Park. The other concern here--that "having two bridges ensures that traffic will always be able to flow in both directions"--is no better served by two three-lane bridges than by one six-lane bridge. Traffic has always flowed in both directions during the entire lifetime of the Peace Bridge, even before they converted it to three lanes thirty years ago, so why should that become any more iffy with twice the number of available lanes?
Can a single-span bridge can be built in the same amount of time as a companion span?
No. Any new plan or option will require a new Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and only then can construction begin. This will take eight to 10 years.
An EIS Will take 8-10 years only if the PBA continues dragging its feet, as it has been. If it had done an EIS six years ago, that would be an historical issue now.
Other communities get an EIS done in 2 years or less, and given the huge amount of work already done, all experts except the PBA staff says that it would take far less than 2 years here. But only if the PBA stops trying to block the EIS.
More important: the EIS isn't some voluntary detour being suggested by arcane activists. It's not an option; it is required by New York environmental law. The PBA made a conscious decision to avoid the legally-required EIS, which is why they have the judgment against them in state court and the new lawsuit against them in federal court filed last week by two West Side community groups.
Also, because the Peace Bridge qualifies as a historic structure, any consideration to razing the bridge requires the completion of an additional Environmental Impact Statement, (parenthetically known as a 4F review) which would be extremely time consuming and negate the scheduled completion of the companion span, or any other bridge proposal, for several years.
What "scheduled completion of the companion span""Always get suspicious when people wanting something drop into the passive voice. The only schedule here is the one they made up, which Judge Fahey has already told them isn't going to happen. Not a single agency in the US or Canada with jurisdiction over historical sites have ever declared the Peace Bridge an historic structure. The PBA and its friends began lobbying to get it declared an historical site in both countries as an attempt to block signature span designs.
Will tax money and toll increases be needed to pay for a new companion bridge?
Under the Peace Bridge Authority's proposal, no tax money and no additional tolls are required for construction of the new bridge or redecking of the existing bridge.
They have no ideas what toll increases will be needed because they have no idea what the new bridge will cost or what it will cost to repair the decrepit underwater structure of the old bridge, should they decide to keep it going. The PBA will pay for repairs and bridge construction out of tolls, but millions of US tax dollars will go into the access roads and the plaza. This is like saying "We're giving you the car for free--but you have to pay us $35,000 for the tires." Moreover, the US government is required to pay millions of tax dollars for offices and processing areas in any new plaza, while the Canadian government gets comparable space for nothing. The Canadian government space is underwritten by tolls, which means Americans are paying for their own office space with tax dollars and for half the Canadian office space with toll dollars.
Is the Peace Bridge historically significant?
Yes, the Peace Bridge qualifies as an historic structure in both the United States and Canada.
This is like saying your uncle Fred is historically significant. Significant Fred may be, but absent a declaration of historical significance from an agency with some responsibility for such declarations, the utterance is of interest only within the family. And, as I noted above, the only people who have thus far asked that the Peace Bridge be declared a historical monument were doing it as part of the PBA's attempt to avoid consideration of alternative designs and to avoid US environmental laws.
If the current bridge is designated as a historic site how can the current Parker Truss be replaced with a new arch?
The existing Black Rock Canal arch, known as the Parker Truss, is the least historical aspect of the bridge structure, with the five river arches as the most historic. If it is economically feasible to replace the Parker Truss, the PBA would approach the appropriate historic preservation agencies in Canada and New York State to begin the process to gain approval to replace this part of the bridge. This process would require community and government consensus on both sides of the border.
Unless the PBA is successful in its attempt to have the bridge declared an historic site, there is no need to approach anybody because nobody has ever declared it sacrosanct in any regard. If the Parker Truss is not historic, then the rest of the bridge is not historic. They can't have it both ways. The notion that you can cut away one-fifth without changing the whole is like saying the look of your leg won't be altered by the amputation of your foot.
Is the Peace Bridge structurally sound?
The existing Peace Bridge is in good condition and is carefully inspected every year. According to New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT) sufficiency ratings, the Peace Bridge is on par with the Rainbow, Lewiston-Queenston and Whirlpool bridges. Based on a 1999 inspection report, the bridge received a 55% out of 55% rating for structural integrity.
How a New York State agency compares the Peace Bridge to other bridges in the area doesn't answer the question of whether or not the bridge is structurally sound. The Federal Highway Administration gave the Peace Bridge a sufficiency rating of 17 (on a scale of 1-100) in 1997. That jumped to 58.9 the following year
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 simply doubled its reported numbers and thereby went from a terrible to a passable rating.
More important, there has not been an underwater inspection of the piers since 1981--almost 20 years ago, 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 many 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.
LIE #12 (well, this is really just a red herring)
Will piers for a new companion span raise water levels?
Canadian regulators required the Peace Bridge Authority to achieve a "no net change" or zero percent change in pre-and post-construction water levels which resulted in a redesign of the piers to comply. This has been achieved. The International Joint Commission (IJC) in January 1999 stated they agreed with the hydraulic report as submitted by the Authority. In addition U.S. and Canadian agencies conducted their own independent review to confirm the Authority's results.
So what? Any number of other designs could result in exactly the same or diminished effects on water flow.
Additionally, removal of the Peace Bridge would be extremely expensive and has the potential to greatly impact lake and water flows and levels.
Indeed, it would be expensive to remove the Peace Bridge, but not nearly as expensive as keeping it going as it grows ever more decrepit. Removing it is a one-time expense; keeping it going is perpetual, and ever escalating.
And it is true that it has the potential to impact water flows and levels--but so what? Should we fret if the old bridge comes down and a new bridge goes up and the net effect on flows and levels is zero? Since the PBA has given serious consideration to no design other than a twin span, they cannot say what design would provide optimum flows and levels. The EIS they have worked so hard to avoid might give us that information. Or they might say to the engineers, "Make sure whatever bridge you build has a zero impact on water flows and levels," to which the engineers would reply, "No problem."
The hydraulic impacts of one large pier as proposed by alternative plans coupled with the removal of the existing bridge, will require in-depth, time-consuming study.
A single pier support system is a characteristic of only one of the several designs suggested. And what's wrong with study when you're undertaking a $200 million project? Why are they so afraid of study? Much better to study before you build than doing corrective surgery afterwards. Corrective surgery takes study too.
Has the Authority completed the required environmental procedures?
The Peace Bridge Authority has completed all required environmental procedures with respect to construction of the proposed companion span. In accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1969, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (CEAA), and the New York State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA). The project has received all necessary environmental permits to commence with construction. The companion span plan has undergone extensive review involving environmental, economic and engineering considerations.
An unambiguous judgment rendered in New York State Supreme Court last April 3 says this is not true. Are they saying here that they are immune from judgments in New York Supreme Court?
Why was the decision made to build a companion span steel bridge?
When considering design symmetry, climate and weather patterns, maintenance and long-term viability, it was determined a steel structure would add to the design integrity of the new bridge because it would match the existing bridge as well as provide the most feasible option for long-term life and care of the bridge.
The decision was made to build a companion steel bridge because some people would make more money that way. There is no other context in which a companion steel bridge makes sense, other than lack of imagination. Lack of imagination would explain why they went that way in the first place, but not why they've held on to what is so obviously an inadequate design so desperately for so long.
LIE #17 (this isn't a lie, but I didn't want to start a new category; it's really a threat)
If a new companion span bridge is not built, how will maintenance be conducted on the existing bridge?
The Peace Bridge Authority works hard to ensure that maintenance on the bridge is done at times it will have the least impact on traffic. However, if major repairs or decking has to be completed prior to a new bridge being completed, this work may require closures of one or more lanes on the bridge at any given time.
What t're saying here is, if you don't let us build the bridge we want to build now, we're going to punish you with lane closedowns, the way we did earlier this summer, just to let you know who's boss.
If alternative plaza recommendations require the removal of residences and businesses: how will revenue losses to the City of Buffalo be replaced?
The Peace Bridge Authority does not have powers of eminent domain or right of condemnation so the assemblage of property necessary to create new options would be the responsibility of others. For example, the City of Buffalo would have to take the lead with respect to issues of condemning properties and businesses, funding the purchase of existing properties, replacing lost revenue, making decisions regarding moving existing roadways, etc. Moving the U.S. Plaza has many considerations that will have to be studied in order to determine if such a plan is economically feasible and socially desirable.
This answer says nothing about Buffalo's revenue losses. What it says is, the PBA has no intention of paying for shifting the plaza north of its present location. If Buffalo wants to have Front Park back, then Buffalo is going to have to find the money to do it.
The PBA states that a bridge can be built now and still allow for a North or East plaza location. How is this possible?
Bridge construction for the companion span can begin at this time while still preserving the final location of the U.S. Plaza. If an alternative plaza location is selected after the companion span is completed, the option remains open to change the curve of the bridges on the U.S. side to accommodate a new plaza location.
Sure, and you can fly to Mexico City by heading north--only it takes you about 22,000 more miles than going the other way and nobody sane would do it that way unless they were getting paid by the hour for making the trip.
Why is a South plaza location option not being considered by the Peace Bridge Authority?
Considering a location to the South is not feasible with respect to land acquisition, connecting roadways, and most significantly does not provide for an appropriate or safe road grade for a bridge landing.
They can-t have a south plaza because the community won't let them destroy any more park land than they already have.
Which plaza option will allow the City of Buffalo to restore Front Park and Fort Porter?
All plaza location options allow for restoration of Front Park. If it is recommended that the plaza location remain where it is presently located, Baird and Moore Drives will be removed from the park thereby giving back 3.6 acres of land for park use. The Olmsted Conservancy has completed a restoration master plan in the event this option is selected. If the plaza is moved off its present location, additional acreage can be restored for park use and the possible restoration of Fort Porter.
How could they add three lanes of traffic and give up 3.6 acres of their current plaza site with no other acquisitions? The real bottleneck now isn't on the bridge but on the plaza; surely they're not going to shrink it. Only a northern plaza will allow for restoration of Front Park and the space they need for their expanded operation. PBA doublespeak notwithstanding, the laws of physics continue to apply: you can't have two objects occupying the same space at the same time.
How will the PBA finance any plaza alternative that exceeds their bonding limits?
The Peace Bridge Authority has a limited amount of bond capacity in order to fund all of its long-term capital initiatives without raising tolls or using taxpayer money. Given that, it may be necessary to stretch out the timing of the U.S. Plaza until the necessary resources needed to pay for alternatives are accumulated, or it may require identifying other sources of funding (tax payer money or toll increases) outside the Authority's bond capacity.
I'll translate this for you: "We're ready to build the bridge we have wanted to build all along and we have no intention of building a northern plaza. That was all body lotion we poured out in the hope of softening you up"
Can truck detours be avoided with other plans?
No matter what plan is ultimately used, detours will have to be utilized during this construction period. The proposed Scajacwada/198 detour route is related to the U.S. Plaza and connecting roadways modernization and construction project and not bridge construction.
The detour route was developed and used successfully by the NYSDOT for reconstruction of the Southbound ramp from the U.S. Plaza to the NYS Thruway in the early 1990s without any problem or fanfare. The plan uses NYS highways designated for commercial traffic. Construction incentives to complete the project early could shorten the time frame needed for the detour.
The bridge and plaza work are inseparable, so they can't dismiss this disruption of Buffalo life by saying the 198 detour has nothing to do with the bridge construction. That's what Judge Fahey told them on April 3 and that's what is at issue in the new lawsuit filed in federal court last Friday. Their Alice-in-Wonderland-doublespeak notwithstanding, the PBA's twin span plan will require routing trucks through city streets and Delaware Park along Route 198, and it will vastly increase the number of trucks on route 33. None of the plans for the six-lane bridge require that.
Peace Bridge Authority
That wasn't a question and answer, but it was a misleading phrase they used 12 times in the FAQ. As I've several times said in these pages, their name is not the Peace Bridge Authority, it's the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority, which phrase they never used at all in their FAQ. They'll do anything to keep the public out of their business.
So much misinformation and deception on a single web page! It's exhausting to deal with people or agencies who lie all the time. They force you to test everything and keep safeguards in place every moment. It would be nicer if we could deal with the PBA the way we deal with the public library, say, or our mailman. But we can't. That's why those lawsuits in state and federal court are necessary.
What's astonishing about these guys isn't that they work so hard to get their way and deceive the rest of us in pursuit of that goal. People do that all the time. It's not nice, but people do it. What's astonishing is that even though we catch them at it again and again, even though there are hearings like those organized by the Public Consensus Review Panel or court decisions like Judge Fahey's, they keep plodding straight ahead, telling the same lies again and again and again.
The other thing that's astonishing is that not one of the five American representatives to the Public Bridge Authority seems to be concerned about this kind of misrepresentation of fact and gross distortion in their names. The relationship between the Authority and its staff is mostly hidden from public view, so there's no way to tell if this bunch of lies is something the staff slipped by the Authority or if it's something the Authority told the staff to try slipping by the public.
They're all political appointees, but many people hoped that when Attorney General Eliot Spitzer replaced a steel executive with Barbra Kavanaugh in February 1999 the public would finally have someone on the board who would represent its interests, someone who would at least let the rest of us know what goes on in those closed meetings. There's no gag order keeping any member of the Authority from telling the truth about what goes on in those meetings; they're all silent by choice.
There might as well be a gag order, because Kavanaugh has been dead silent since she joined the board. The Attorney General's office fought against the city of Buffalo, the Episcopal Church Home and the Olmsted Society in the lawsuit against the PBA in New York Supreme Court. We don't know if Kavanaugh has simply absented herself from all PBA activities to avoid a conflict of interest--in which case the public has been deprived of the one potentially independent vote there--or if she is remaining silent by choice or policy. What we do know is that no one on that board cares enough about the public interest to stand up outside of that board room and say: "What they're doing is wrong. They've got to start telling the truth for a change. They've got to stop stonewalling."
Which is why the lawsuit decided by Judge Fahey in April and the lawsuit filed in federal court last week are so important to us all. The halls of Justice--unlike the board room of the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority--are open to everybody. The justice system provides a forum in which voices can be heard and in which egregious lies can be awarded the punishments they deserve. Neither of those lawsuits is about bridge design. Both are about air and noise pollution, disruption of city traffic patterns, consumption of public land, and other violent incursions into the quality of life in this community.
Which is to say, those two lawsuits are about all those factors of daily life that are of vital concern to all of us and which the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority would prefer be discussed by none of us. The Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority would like dead silence about anything that would stand between it and the anachronistic, expensive, environmentally degrading steel twin span it so desperately wants to build.
And if it can't shut down conversation, then maybe it can at least contaminate the quality of it by a disinformation campaign, such as the misleading television barrage last spring just before Judge Fahey rendered his decision and this web page of good questions and misleading and mendacious answers.
Want to know more? Call the only two numbers on the PBA's entire web site that will connect you with a person who will talk to you about anything (other than getting your truck through US Customs via the Commercial Vehicle Processing Center in Fort Erie or acquiring a CanPass to help you move through both customs operations more quickly). Those two numbers will put you in touch with the PBA's two press agents: Susan Asquith, Collins and Company, 716.842.2266, and Catherine Clark, Clark and Associates, 905.608.1055.
Call them. They'll tell you everything the PBA thinks you ought to know.
copyright 2000 Bruce Jackson