(Artvoice  14 September 2000)
Peace Bridge Chronicles #41

The Great Autumnal Peace Bridge Q&A  Part I

by Bruce Jackson
 

This article and its companion in the September 28 Artvoice consist entirely of responses to questions submitted by Artvoice readers about the operations of the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority.

The questions are in bold type. Some of them are very brief; some contain comments. None of these questions is me pitching slow balls to myself. Every one is authentic and the texts of nearly all are exactly as they came in. A few were asked by two or more people, so I combined the phrasing. Some recent questions had been asked and answered in one of the two previous Peace Bridge Q&A articles (“The Great Summer Peace Bridge Q&A,” May 3 1999 and “The Vernal Peace Bridge Q&A,” 30 March 2000). I included some of those questions, with updated answers, in this round.
 
My thanks to all the Artvoice readers who took the trouble to voice their concerns and all the public officials and private citizens who helped me find the answers.

I wish I could thank equally the Peace Bridge officials for their help but I cannot. Peace Bridge general manager Earl Rowe neither accepts nor returns my telephone calls. The PBA’s web site invites questions from the public and promises answers. I’ve asked questions there and have gotten no responses at all. I don’t know if this is how they deal with everyone who isn’t asking a question about truck cargo processing or buying or selling something, or if it’s just how they deal with members of the press who are not in their pocket or on their payroll. As I’ve pointed out here previously, the informational pages on their web site are full of misinformation, and they won’t even list the names of the current membership of their board of directors.

 B.J.

If PBA board members were forced to live on Buffalo's West Side, how many of them would do an about face and demand an environmental impact study?
Not one of them lives anywhere near Buffalo’s West side, so not one of them has to wrestle with that sticky question.
The policy choice of the PBA board to follow what they called “the lowest possible path” has resulted in all these delays and huge expenses. What they did was maybe legal, but it’s surely irresponsible. If they were in a private corporation they would be tossed out and maybe sued for wasting the stockholders’ money. But since they are a public benefit corporation, shouldn’t they be charged with gross negligence? They’re all political appointees, so the voter has no direct access to them. Isn’t there anything that can be done about people who are negligent, incompetent handlers of the public trust? If they were members of an ordinary corporation stockholders could hold them responsible for costing the company all this money.
Not if the corporation had the total indemnification clause the PBA tucked into its by-laws in 1995:
The Authority shall indemnify and hold harmless every member of the Board and officer of the Authority and their respective heirs, estates successors and assigns who is or was a party, or is or was threatened to be made a party, to any action, suit, proceeding or investigation, whether civil, criminal or administrative, arising under or in connection with the activities of such person as a member of the Board or an officer of the Authority (any such person is hereinafter referred to as an “Indemnitee”) from and against expenses (including attorneys’ fees, judgments, fines and mounts paid in defense, settlement or judgment actually and necessarily incurred by the Indemnitee) in connection with such action, suit, proceeding or investigation, or any appeal therein or thereto, to the fullest extent permitted by applicable law, but excluding any liability resulting from the willful misconduct of such Indemnitee.
The import of the last phrase is this: unless you get one of them standing up and saying, “I did what I did to screw everybody because I’m malicious” or “I did what I did to make a lot of money,” they are liable for nothing. Peace Bridge toll money will pay for their attorneys, their taxis to and from court, presumably even their meals while trial is going on or while they’re meeting with their attorneys. That total coverage continues through appeals, and payment of any judgment against them should they lose at appeal. So long as the harm they do is done out of ignorance, stupidity, naivete, or block-headedness, or seems so, the individual members of the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority are responsible for nothing.

(A curious collateral note: that indemnification appears in the minutes of the same meeting at which the term “twin span” is recorded for the first time. I wonder what might they have been thinking, to deal with both those issues the same morning.)

I’d argue one of the premises undergirding this question: the five Canadian members of the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority are very competent handlers of the Canadian public trust. They’ve gotten the PBA to pour millions of dollars taken from toll revenue (half of which is paid by Americans) into Fort Erie construction projects: a new Fort Erie city hall, a new Fort Erie double ice rink, a new Fort Erie courthouse, a huge Fort Erie duty-free shop that employs dozens of locals. The PBA contributes to just about every Fort Erie civic activity and organization. Just last week the Public Bridge Authority cosponsored  “The Mayor’s Millennium Dinner,” an event honoring Fort Erie’s last nine mayors. Do you remember the last time the PBA poured money into an event honoring any of Buffalo’s mayors?

The PBA provides jobs–directly or indirectly–for a least one person in nearly every family in and around Fort Erie. The PBA is Fort Erie’s WPA. The PBA is good to Fort Erie. Fort Erie will do anything the PBA wants or needs. It’s a beautiful symbiotic relationship, over there, on that side of the river, on that side of the border.

The Canadian members of the PBA have also delivered on a regional level. They’ve held fast to insistence on anachronistic steel construction, which will not only cost more to put up but which will cost a good deal more to maintain. Individuals in profit-making industries are always interested in keeping costs to a minimum. But some government agencies often think exactly the other way: the more things cost, the more money there is to spread around, the more jobs there are to be handed out. The Canadians want to see money spent: money for steel fabricated in Canada and money for people to scrape and paint and derust and repave two steel bridges for decades. The more maintenance the bridge requires, the more patronage there is to hand out. The Canadians want to see money spent building an entirely new bridge in twenty or thirty years from now when the decrepit old bridge gets too expensive to justify maintaining. If the absurd twin span were built now, then how could they put up anything but a second twin span to match that absurd twin span then? They couldn’t, so that would be more money going to the Canadian steel fabricators, more money in patronage maintenance jobs.

What about all the harm done to the environment and infrastructure in Buffalo by all those trucks passing through here on the way to and from cities to the south and Mexico? That’s an American problem, so why should Canadian politicians care about it? How excited would Washington get or would Buffalonians get if a construction project that would send a lot of money our way would poison the air in a residential area in Hamilton, Ontario, or clogged an otherwise adequate highway in Toronto?

It’s the American members of the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority we have to wonder about. Why would they accept a plan that has a hugely negative impact on the city of Buffalo, that pours enormous amounts of noxious fumes into residential areas, that sends jobs to Canada and states other than New York, that is willing to permit years of trucks routed through Buffalo’s west side?

I can give a partial answer to how they let it happen. For years the Americans came to the PBA board meetings unprepared. They were more concerned about what was for lunch than what was on the agenda, one person who was there told me. The Canadians came in and regularly voted as a bloc, obeying the marching orders sent down from Ottawa.  For the past year, we’ve been told, the Americans have been one vote short: the representative of the New York Attorney General hasn’t been present for key votes because the Attorney General was representing the PBA in court fights against the citizens of Buffalo. To avoid a conflict of interest, she didn’t vote, with the result being that there was always one more Canadian vote than American. Since the death of American board member Louis Billitier, the balance is even more skewed: it’s now 5 to 3, in favor of the Canadians, a lousy score for Buffalo in hockey and in bridge politics both.

Not that the American board members would vote to support regional interests anyway. Governor Pataki has said he supports a signature span and environmental issues, but not one of his PBA appointments has publicly reflected either concern. His appointment to fill the late Louis Billitier’s seat will be indicative of where he really stands: will he give us another captain of industry and major Republican fund-raiser like Victor Martucci, who was immediately elected chairman and who immediately began endorsing the Canadian twin span plan, or someone who understands the issues and really has the public interest at heart, like Jeff Belt?

Why! oh why! would a project sponsor (the PBA or any developer for that matter) EXPOSE itself to such a simple legal challenge and on such fundamental legal grounds (as SEQRA [State Environmental Quality Review] and NEPA [National Environmental Policy Act]) after spending $MILLIONS on studies, plans, permit apps, modeling, etc...$MILLIONS!!! What kind of lawyer would advise  this? They had to know that the path they took was wide open to a  legal  challenge that could render the ENTIRE project dead in its  tracks. They had to know that some environmental body or at least one of   their neighbors would and could sue!. (If not, they have a  fantastic  lawyer malpractice case.)
This writer went on to answer his own question: “ A: (in my opinion) if they knew -- and they did --then they continued  that path because they already know the answers to a full study.
And those answers probably prohibit this project from going  forward  at all!! The (dirty little secret) studies they did in the  pre-approval days, probably seriously jeopardize the expansion
 in the shape and form they are financially viable to undertake. Their  secret studies probably revealed thresholds well above SEQRA/NEPA standards, meaning costly mitigative measures and therefore  arrived  at their current "scheme" in order to skirt the overall  (comprehensive EIS) results. It is the only way I can fathom  why they proceeded down such a legally risky and expensive path.”

Is the author of that letter right on the money or speculating wildly? The PBA’s board members and attorneys will never tell, so we can only speculate. Had the PBA done the legally-required EIS in the first place, there wouldn’t be cause to ask such questions or need to speculate on the answers.

What is the PBA's rationale for appealing Judge Fahey’s ruling that they have to submit to a full environmental impact study for the bridge and plaza, that they can’t segment them into two parts? Is their argument procedural or substantive? If the latter, they almost certainly lose, but are they perhaps arguing that a state judge lacks jurisdiction over an international body?
Nobody other than the PBA and its lawyers knows what grounds they’ll argue, or even if they’ll actually file an appeal. All the legal people I’ve talked to (the ones who don’t work for the PBA) say they would lose any appeal that tried to attack the issues: if they want to put a new bridge here, they’ve got to do the legally-required environmental impact study.

It’s equally unlikely that they’ll win on a jurisdictional issue. They’ve frequently taken the position that they’r e above various state and even federal laws because they were authorized by two countries, but that’s never been tested in court. In point of fact, two separate entities were created by two separate countries and the two separate laws said that both of those entities would work together. (New York, 1933, chap. 824; Statutes of Canada, 1934, chap. 63). Nothing in either law said that the combined entity would be exempt from the laws that apply to everyone else. One side of the bridge isn’t even subject to the law controlling the other side of the bridge: the American law exempts the bridge from property taxes, the Canadian law does not; the American law says the books and records shall be open for close inspection by the New York treasurer and comptroller whenever they wish, the Canadian law says nothing about checking the books.

Because it exists on the basis of two separate laws in two separate jurisdictions, the Buffalo and Erie County Public Bridge Authority is subject to more, not fewer, laws. It’s understandable that they’d prefer things were otherwise but, happily for us, they’re not.

I wrote a letter to the editor of the Buffalo News in which I referred to the “Public Bridge Authority.” They published my letter, but they changed “Public Bridge Authority” to “Peace Bridge Authority. I had the name right. Why would they change it like that?
Two other people asked similar questions, one about a letter, another about a “My Turn” column. It’s one thing for the Buffalo News to use the PBA’s preferred name for itself in news articles, something else to alter a reader’s letter so it says something the reader never wrote or intended. I asked Buffalo News editor Margaret Sullivan to explain that policy. She responded immediately, saying she’d pass my inquiry along to Copy Editing Coordinator Scott Thomas. This is Thomas’s response in its entirety:
Editor in Chief Margaret Sullivan has asked me to respond to your e-mail regarding our style on the Peace Bridge Authority.
 
We’re aware that the legal name of the entity is Public Bridge Authority. We adopted “Peace Bridge Authority” as the newspaper’s style partly because that’s how most Buffalonians commonly refer to the authority. (We call many entities by names that differ somewhat from what they call themselves; the University at Buffalo and Buffalo State college are two examples.) We also recognize that the divergent names for the authority carry some weight on different sides of the Peace Bridge debate, and we wanted to avoid any appearance of favoritism.

We may revisit this issue the future. Thanks for your inquiry.

That’s really loopy.

First, the parenthesis. “University at Buffalo” IS the name of the University at Buffalo; the Buffalo News is only calling it what it calls itself. What’s the big deal about calling a major public institution by its correct name? The Buffalo News cites this as a policy decision? Astonishing. The official name of Buff State is State University of New York College at Buffalo, which is not only ungainly, but might confuse some people who don’t know that SUNY contains scores of colleges but only four universities, which is why SUNY lists it on its web site as “Buffalo State.” Calling UB by its correct name and Buffalo State by the name Albany and everyone in this region everyone uses for it doesn’t hide anything; rather, it makes things clearer.

But the Buffalo News has joined the Public Bridge Authority in using a name that hides what the PBA is and does. Clarity with the schools and misdirection with the PBA—not the same thing at all.

It’s true that “Peace Bridge Authority” is the name commonly used in Buffalo. The reason that is so is the Public Bridge Authority and the Buffalo News call it nothing else. How are ordinary citizens, who trust the Buffalo News to call things by their right names, to know that the Buffalo News is working with the Public Bridge Authority to mislead?

It’s like the Mafia calling itself the Greater Buffalo Neighborhood Improvement Society and the Buffalo News telling us about the activities of the Greater Buffalo Neighborhood Improvement Society. Anybody or anything can call itself whatever it wants, but calling yourself something doesn’t mean you are that thing. A newspaper should be opting for the side of clarity, not misdirection. This isn’t at all a matter of “divergent names.” This is a matter of a legal name clearly there in every legal document and a made-up name used to keep the public as far away as possible.

The Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority is a public agency that works very hard to act as if it were a private construction and real estate firm. It is neither. I’ve long thought it was lousy journalism for the Buffalo News to print that misleading name in anything but direct quotations of Public Bridge Authority officials and documents. I thought it was editorial laziness, but after reading Scott Thomas’s letter I know it’s not the least bit lazy: it’s a considered and deliberate decision, and I think it’s reprehensible.

What is the limit of the PBA's authority? Is it the only entity empowered to construct and manage a bridge between Buffalo and Fort Erie? What if the bridge is two miles downstream? (In this regard, maybe we oughtta let them call themselves the "Peace Bridge Authority" and then give them no authority over a separate bridge.)
There’s no legal reason they or another company—public or private—couldn’t build and operate a bridge at the International Bridge (sometimes called ‘The Railroad Bridge’) a mile to the south, or any other place between here and Niagara Falls. But there are massive political reasons. Any such company would have to get US and Canadian federal and state/provincial governments to provide customs and immigration facilities for the new bridge and get those same governments permit the new bridge to at the new locations and hook up with the Thruway on this side and the QEW on the other. Without those federal control services and highway hookups, it would be a bridge from and to nowhere. And that’s where the PBA gets its nose back in: the only way another crossing would get through either government at present would be if the PBA defined it as an expansion of the current operation. Could that change? Sure, but making changes like that is hugely difficult, especially since the master manipulator Robert Moses went to the Great Construction Project in the sky.
I would like to know why they do not join up with the rest of the region to come up with a plan to manage the commercial traffic.
Because then they might have to consider the possibility that this isn’t the best place to put the new truck bridge, and they’d lose all that potential patronage and power.
There is some interest from a federal supporter of ours to try to get a full audit of the PBA. Any suggestions on how that might be brought about?
Ask New York comptroller Carl McCall to do one. Write your state legislators and the governor and ask them to ask McCall to do one. It’s a month until elections: they’ll promise you anything now and some of them might even deliver on those promises later. McCall has the authority. The only other time he did one, I’ve been told, the PBA managed to steer him into asking only benign questions. A lot more is known about PBA operations now and there are far more tough questions a serious audit would have to ask.
My question to you and to the Public Bridge Authority is this: What benefit will this region derive from the increased truck traffic as a result of building the twin span or any other bridge. Although I am strongly in favor of the Signature Bridge and creating a northern plaza (thereby returning to us the complete Front Park) I am anxious to find out where are the economic benefits that the PBA is so anxious to bring to this region.
The PBA and Andrew Rudnick of the Buffalo-Niagara Partnership have consistently said that an expanded bridge will bring huge numbers of jobs to this area and any delay in construction costs us jobs. Though asked repeatedly for specific data and projections, neither the PBA nor the Partnership has ever produced anything other than vague claims.

Surely there will be some jobs for customs brokers and attorneys and transfer agents. There will be more bridge jobs because two steel bridges will require far more maintenance than the present single steel bridge or a brand-new concrete bridge. There will be more maintenance work on I-190 because of the increased truck traffic (the Canadian government projects an annual passage of four million trucks through Buffalo every year a decade from now). There will be more work for health care providers dealing with childhood lung disorders occasioned by the huge increase in noxious fumes from those trucks being routed alongside residential areas.

Beyond that: nothing. There is no indication that any of the thousands of manufacturing jobs created by NAFTA will come anywhere near Buffalo. Nearly all those heavy trucks will use Buffalo as a border crossing and highway connector, nothing more. They won’t even stop for lunch or fuel here.

Rudnick and the Buffalo Niagara Partnership may have reasons for supporting distant manufacturers and purchases, but so far as we can tell, the primary beneficiary of increasing the truck traffic through this port will be the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority itself: as it has more lanes and more trucks and more maintenance to oversee, its own staff and bureaucracy will grow. The basic law of most species is the law of Self-Preservation; the basic law of most bureaucracies is the law of Self-Expansion.

What is done with Buffalo/Western New York’s share of Peace Bridge profits? Improvements to the Canadian side of the Peace Bridge are highly visible: an attractive plaza, a new duty-free shop, a new truck processing facility, and an ever-expanding Town Hall and sports complex on Highway 3. There is nothing comparable on the American side of the bridge. Where they have showpieces, we have shabbiness. If we assume that an equal amount of money was made available to the American owners over the years, what was done with our share? What continues to be done with it?
It doesn’t work like that, alas. Those construction projects on the Canadian side were parts of deals for land and to curry political favor. The money never went directly to Fort Erie to do with as it wished; the PBA just picked up the tab for each of those expensive construction projects.

The profits of the bridge go into public coffers only when the PBA retires all of its debt, and the PBA has no intention of ever doing that. If the PBA retires its debt, it dissolves on the spot and all its holdings revert to New York and Canada. Every time the PBA has gotten close to being able to retire its debt it refinanced or issued new bonds creating new debt.

The current legislation specifies that New York and Canada each get $200,000 per year from PBA profits. Canada has told the PBA it can keep its $200,000; the American $200,000 goes to the NFTA.

If the Authority paid real estate taxes, the way you and I do and the way any profit-making corporation does, it would have paid about $6 million last year instead of the $783,000 it divided equally between Buffalo and Fort Erie in lieu of taxes.

Assemblyman Sam Hoyt has sponsored a bill(A08811) that  would have the PBA pay Buffalo and Fort Erie $2 million for improvements to the parks adjacent to the bridge and $1 million a year thereafter. He notes that the $200,000 Buffalo gets as a result of the 1970 legislation is worth $857,304 in current dollars. The PBA has raised its tolls considerably since then, but it hasn’t raised its payments to the communities where it resides. We’d all love to have our real estate taxes set at the 1970 level, but there’s no reason the PBA should be the only guy in town getting that sweet deal.

Who are and will be the firms or people to benefit from the "kickbacks" or outright bribes to the PBA? By this I would like to know specific names and dollar amounts involved if available.
So would I, but they aren’t telling, and never will.  An in-depth full-steam audit by New York Controller Carl McCall might provide a start.
The PBA still insists that we will be suffering economic harm if we do not build a new bridge now. In addition to the obvious arguments against this claim that the bridge is not the bottleneck and the Commercial Vehicle Processing Center in Fort Erie remains grossly underutilized, I challenge the PBA to back up this claim. The PBA has said in the past that GM, Southwest Airlines, and UPS would not come here if we didn't commit to the Twin Span. Last I checked, GM committed to the investment at Tonawanda, Southwest will be flying this fall, and UPS has expanded in the area through local acquisition. The PBA's own study emphasizes the minuscule economic impact of the small number of trucks that do not simply pass right on through. Is there so much positive economic impact that we should ignore everything else, including our community's health and well-being (not to mention all of the other issues)? I would argue that no amount of economic impact is worth the lives of people.
You answered that question as well as I could.
The engineers recommended a new plaza to the north of the current plaza and a companion span. Why did the Public Consensus Review Panel accept the first recommendation and not the second? Weren’t they bound to accept whatever the engineers said?
If they were bound to accept whatever the engineers said then there would have been no need for them to vote on it. That was just a scam floated by PBA chairman Victor Martucci in his statement the day after the Panel vote. I can’t speak for all members of the Panel (only one of the 20 voted for the engineers’ report–Natalie Harder, Buffalo Niagara Partnership president Andrew Rudnick’s representative) but what I heard was that the engineers cut a deal. The American engineers hired by the panel gave in to the Canadian engineers hired by the Public Bridge Authority. The Canadians wouldn’t go for a new plaza unless the Americans traded the bridge. The American engineers voted as they did for political, not engineering or ecological reasons, and they said so in their report. The PCRP rejected that recommendation because they had hired the engineers to make technical, not political recommendations. The engineers hired by the PBA were of course under no such restriction, which is probably why they held out for that political deal.
Do you have an understanding of how the PBA was created? Who initiated the legislation that created them? Was it Canada and the US that created the Authority or just NY? If the Authority’s business practices were to be changed, would it have to go through Canadian parliament?
There were conversations about and attempts at building a bridge between Fort Erie and Buffalo going back at least to 1851, but nothing happened until 1919 when a group of twenty-five Canadians and Americans set up the Buffalo and Fort Erie Bridge Corporation. They wanted a bridge that would get let them move between the two communities faster and more flexibly than did the ferries then available. (Did you ever wonder why West Ferry Street has that name?) They put up $50,000 of their own money to get the corporation going, and then set out to raise $4,500,000 in bonds for the actual construction. The bonds were mostly sold locally, and the offering was oversubscribed before the first offering day was out. People on both sides of the river really wanted the bridge, they liked the idea of the bridge, they were willing to invest their own money to have the bridge.

The Bridge opened to the public on June 1 of that year. At the August 7, 1927, opening ceremony, which was attended by the Prince of Wales and the Vice President of the United States, John W. Van Allen, one of the original incorporators of the Peace Bridge said:

Hereafter, this bridge belongs to the public. Our sole remaining function is to collect the tolls and pass the money back to those who advanced it. The construction problems are over; [there] remains now only its dedication to service, and we wish to all, great joy and the convenience in the use of it.
Would that it had been so. The public has yet to get ownership of the bridge, the people who run the bridge have and are doing far more than collecting tolls and giving money back to investors, and the construction problems have never been worse.
 
Because of the Great Depression and the end of Prohibition, the numbers of vehicles making the crossing plunged and there was a real danger that the company would default on its bonds. For a time, Frank B. Baird, president and prime mover of the project, put his own money into the struggling company but not even his great private wealth could keep it going in the face of declining income.

In 1933, the Bridge Company sought governmental salvation. Over the next year, three separate pieces of legislation in Ottawa, Albany, and Washington, D.C., created the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Commission, a public benefit corporation. Public benefit corporations exist in a land of deliberate legal ambiguity: they aren’t government agencies and neither are they private corporations. Their profits in theory belong to the governments that created them, but they behave more like ordinary corporations than an arm of government. They can partake of some of the benefits of government status–their property and bonds are tax exempt, for example–but they have separation from primary agencies of government not enjoyed by organizations that really belong to the public, such as SUNY or the New York Thruway. A public benefit corporation controls its own resources.

The Authority at first had nine members, six from the US and three from Canada. It acquired all the assets and debts of the bridge company. With the debts restructured and almost no taxes to pay, the Authority was on firm financial footing.

In 1957, New York State created the Niagara Frontier Port Authority (now the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority) and tried to tuck the now-profitable Peace Bridge into it. The Bridge Authority balked. It asked New York Attorney General Jacob Javits for a ruling: could the New York Legislature take over an organization created by the government of New York, the government of Canada and the U.S. Congress? Javits said no, the power play wouldn’t hold up.

So the ownership papers were redrawn another time. There were four key changes:
 ---Total board membership would increase to ten, with five members from each country.
 ---The bridge would be directly tied to no other agency so it could remain fully independent.
 ---The two countries would divide excess revenues equally.
 ---And the sunset, the date everything would be turned over to the two governments, was extended from whenever the outstanding bonds were paid off to 1992.

By 1970, it was clear that bridge capacity would have to be expanded, which meant the Authority would have to issue new construction bonds. The governments extended the life of the Authority to 2020 and raised the debt limit. The Canadian government and the State of New York, instead of splitting whatever cash was left over after payments were made, would each get a flat $200,000 each year, and the Public Bridge Authority would keep the excess for development.

Does the Peace Bridge make money?
Yes. Huge amounts of it.
 
Their 1998 annual report, issued November 5, 1999, shows total assets of $120,013,088, up more than $10 million from the previous year. It shows an excess of revenues over expenses of $9,180,378. It shows a fund balance (assets less liabilities) of $64,668,291.

They’re bloody rich.

They received $13,952,982 form truck tolls and $4,996,828 from passenger vehicle tolls in 1998, a total of $19,949,810. The previous year’s numbers were $11,614,065 for trucks, $5,326,049 for passenger vehicles, a total of $16,940,114. That’s a jump of more than $3 million—almost 18% in one year. Who but a dot-com wouldn’t be ecstatic about that kind of profit increase? The trend for auto traffic is fairly flat, but the truck revenues are going nowhere but up. With what it is making on truck traffic, the Authority could dispense entirely with the income from automobiles and still turn a huge profit.

One interesting entry in their statement is Rentals:  $4,866,212. The two duty-free shops paid $3,660,000. In case you wondered why the PBA moved the American duty-free shop from Porter Avenue to the bridge plaza, where it creates constant traffic jams, that’s why: they make more money having it on the bridge than having it off, and they’re not the least bit bothered by the traffic jams.

The report doesn’t give the source of the other $1,206,212 in rentals, but since the Canadian Customs Act prohibits any toll-collecting border crossing entity from charging the Canadian government any rental or any other fees for the space it uses for inspections, that is probably all American rental money. That is, the Americans have to pay rent for space the Canadian government gets for free, which means American tax dollars pay that rental money and American toll dollars pay half of the support for the Canadian facilities. Who ever told you Americans were canny businessmen?

Is there any way to make the PBA responsive to community concerns?
The Canadian representatives are all dancing to Ottawa’s drum, so there’s nothing anyone this side of the border might do to influence them unless our own Federal government decides Buffalo’s interests matter as much as stroking Ottawa’s feelings matter. Thus far, that hasn’t happened. Madeleine Albright will talk to anyone in the Balkans, but no one on the Niagara Frontier has ever been able to get her attention. Our two US senators have been strong advocates of a rational aesthetic and environmental policy here, but neither of the two current candidates for Moynihan’s seat has said anything but mush. The problem is, the bridge patronage is above partisan politics. The PBA is about big money, not Republicans or Democrats. As of this writing, neither Fazio nor Clinton is willing to take them on.

Sam Hoyt has sponsored a bill (A09910) that would increase the board to 12 by giving Buffalo and Fort Erie each a seat on the board. The same bill would require the two cities to approve all major capital projects undertaken by the PBA. The one vote wouldn’t make much of a difference in voting–there would still be 6 Canadians voting as a block–but at least we’d have a channel through which we might receive information about what is going on in the closed meeting rooms. And the approval provision is bigger. It  would give Buffalo direct involvement in expansion matters. Instead of having to go to court to stop further mutilation of the City, the City could just say no.

I’m sure the PBA will pour buckets of money into blocking Hoyt’s very reasonable bill. As far as the PBA board is concerned, what they do is none of our business. PBA board member and Fort Erie resident Deanna DiMartile told Time Magazine correspondent Stephen Handelman, “It’s only when outside influences step in that things break down.” This, I think, is the heart of the current problem with the PBA. It regards nearly everyone outside its own boardroom as “outside influences.” Senators Moynihan and Schumer, Governor Pataki, the Buffalo Common Council, the region’s delegation to Albany, you and me—we’re “outside influences.”

Sure we are.

I would like to know how we turn the Public Bridge Authority into a responsible group with the vision and leadership necessary to make this project the best it can be.
  And we’d all like to know how to make silk out of a sow’s ear. You want silk, go to silkworms, not sows.
 
 
 
copyright 2000 Bruce Jackson
 

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