(Artvoice  21 September 2000)
Peace Bridge Chronicles #42

Where Things Are
by Bruce Jackson

The question I hear more than any other about the Peace Bridge affair is not “What is going on?” (which presumes people are doing something) but rather, “Is anything happening?” (which asks if anyone is doing anything at all).

Only the PBA can build the bridge,” Buffalo Common Council President James Pitts is fond of pointing out, which is to say, all these lawsuits and court orders and public posturings wind up with a single question: Is the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority doing anything to resolve the legal, political and economic mess that it created and only it can end or is it going to sulk and wallow in accusations and endless court procedures?

There’s a slight chance that something did happen this week. If it did happen, it was small. A ten-minute encounter embedded in a two-hour flurry of rhetoric and performance. It may, as Macbeth memorably put it in his eulogy for his suicide wife, have been nothing more than “sound and fury signifying nothing.” Then again, it may very well, in its relative minority, have been the first indication of the sweet presence of reason in this wearisome affair. The encounter took place in the course of the first meeting in 15 months of the Buffalo Common Council’s SuperSpan Signature Bridge Task Force.

Seven or eight of the two-dozen people in the room spoke at length during the meeting. Some shared useful information. Some argued for one position or another. Some asked pointed questions. One (a real estate salesman) tried to ensure future business.

The encounter that mattered, however, directly involved only two men: Tony Bullock (Senator Moynihan’s chief of staff) and Victor Martucci (chairman of the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority).

It’s been more than three months since New York Supreme Court Judge Eugene Fahey issued his preliminary order telling the New York Department of Environmental Conservation and the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority that the PBA could not ignore federal and state environmental law, that it would have to do a full environmental impact study on its bridge and plaza expansion project before it sliced the earth. The day after Judge Fahey’s preliminary order, PBA chairman Martucci told a press conference that if the PBA had to obey state and federal law it might not build any new bridge or plaza here at all. Or, he said, the PBA might appeal.

Shortly thereafter (primarily because of relentless pressure from the five Canadian members, all of whom are appointed by and follow the orders of the Canadian federal government), the PBA filed a notice of intent to appeal Judge Fahey’s ruling. That doesn’t mean they’re going to do it, only that they’re keeping their options open. They have until March 2001 to file the appeal and provide the court and opposing counsel all the supporting documents. If they do file, everything will be on hold for years while this thing wends its way through the courts, and at the end of the process they’ll almost certainly lose. Judge Fahey’s decision can force them to obey environmental law, but only if they want to build the bridge badly enough to let some daylight into their heretofore sheltered operations.

It all got racheted up a jurisprudential level on July 28 when a lawsuit against the PBA and several federal agencies that had lazily gone along with the PBA’s plans was filed in Federal court. The PBA and the federal agencies have requested an extension until the end of November to answer the federal lawsuit. That process too could take years before it is ever resolved and, like the state case, even if the federal court finds for the people and against the PBA, the decision matters only if the PBA decides to do something.

Senator Chuck Schumer, who has been a great advocate for Buffalo interests in this matter,  wearied of the PBA’s inaction and set up a second visit from the operators of Detroit’s Ambassador bridge. The Detroit gang visited a year ago at the invitation of Senator Moynihan and proposed building an entirely new bridge a mile north of the present bridge, adjacent to the International/Railroad Bridge.  On May 26, at the Adam’s Mark, they presented a revised version of their proposal, then they went away, and that was the end of that.

There have been a few flutters out in the countryside, but none of them seems to be going anywhere either. Alan Gandell, head of the Niagara Falls Bridge Commission, said that putting a trucks-only crossing on the Whirlpool Bridge could relieve the current Peace Bridge congestion quickly, and maybe there were even ways to divert nearly all the increase in truck traffic occasioned by NAFTA to other area bridges. Then, on August 15, without any public explanation,  Gandell resigned. Some people say it was because once the recent development of the Rainbow Bridge plaza was completed his board wasn’t ready for any new projects, and after 10 wearing years on the job he saw no reason to hang on just to do maintenance work. Whatever his reason for stepping down, nobody’s doing any serious talking now about putting a truck deck on the Whirlpool Bridge or any place else up in Niagara County.

From all I’ve been able to find out, things down at the PBA are a mess. The five Canadian board members perform, as always, as a monolith, demanding everything, considering no compromise, in perfect lockstep to orders from Ottawa. The three voting American members of the PBA are reeling under greater and greater pressure. I know of no one this side of the border who is not in the debt or control of Canadian steel interests who any longer supports the anachronistic and hugely expensive steel twin span design the Canadians so desperately want.  The Americans on the PBA  can’t outvote the Canadian bloc, and they don’t want to be mere flunkies for the Canadian steel interests either. I’ve heard that one member of the board has been going around town saying that the current mess is the fault of the staff  (the term “staff” at the PBA always means the two bridge managers, Earl Rowe and Stephen Mayer, not the scores of other people who work down there). David Crane, economics editor of the TORONTO STAR keeps writing articles full of misinformation about why no bridge expansion is going on. I’m pretty sure he’s being spoonfed by the Canadian Minister of Transportation’s office, because what he writes is all partyline stuff. “The Canadians,” one Buffalo businessman who has closely watched the bridge expansion project get stuck in glue said to me, “don’t have a clue that their plan is dead in the water.”

Our local pols either waffle on the Peace Bridge question or are waiting for someone else to do something interesting. When was the last time you heard anything invigorating on this key issue from the mayor’s office, the county executive’s office, from anyone on the Common Council other than Jim Pitts or Dominick Bonifacio? Likewise the candidates for US senator: neither Hillary Clinton nor Rick Fazio will go near the Peace Bridge issue: their big money providers have told both of them to stay out of it and they are.

Three exceptions to the political hiding and waffling pattern are Common Council President James Pitts, Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, and Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

Moynihan was instrumental in making Buffalo area residents aware that an expanded Peace Bridge could provide an architectural work that would fire the imagination rather than a dull structure that would just occupy space and squander money. Hoyt has submitted three bills to the New York legislature that would alter the composition and accountability of the PBA and of late has been having conversations about further restructuring the Authority and ways of ending its penchant for operating in near-total secrecy. And Pitts, who established the SuperSpan Signature Bridge Task Force, has maintained what turns out to be the only public forum in which the various players can sit around a table and talk about where things are and how things might be moved along.

Pitts called a meeting of the Task Force last Thursday, the first since June 3, 1999. PBA chairman Victor Martucci came and sat across the table from Senator Moynihan’s chief of staff, Tony Bullock. Bullock came up from Washington especially for that meeting. It was, so far as I know, the first time the chairman of the PBA has participated in any public conversation about the Peace Bridge since the first meeting of the Task Force on March 19, 1998.

Since then, PBA chairs have appeared at press conferences or have stood up and made speeches, but not one has taken part in any public discussion about the issues. Not one has listened to what anyone else has had to say. PBA chairman Brian Lopinski said at a Buffalo City Hall press conference last October 13 that the PBA was going to participate in the Public Consensus Review Panel and there was a lot of glad-handing immediately thereafter, but that participation turned out to be nothing more than sending in a team of engineers who hyped the PBA’s position in technical meetings. No member of the PBA ever took part in any of the Consensus Panel’s deliberations. Victor Martucci made a statement at a televised meeting of the PCRP, but that’s all it was: a flat statement of what the PBA was doing and intended to do. There was no pretense of listening or considering other opinions or other data. The PBA’s two general managers–Earl Rowe and Steven Mayer–and its attorneys and press agents came to the meetings and took notes on what people were saying, but with one exception not one of them ever participated in anything. The exception was on December 16, 1999, when Rowe and Mayer did a dog-and-pony show for the panel. It was a lot of noise, giving nothing, asking for everything, slipping and sliding and lying about this and that and blowing smoke every direction but up.

Pitts put the Task Force on hold  while the PCRP did its work. He was at the City Hall press conference where Lopinski announced that the PBA would cooperate with the PCRP, but he didn’t speak. He was fairly sure, he told me, that the PCRP process would not result in any change of behavior by the PBA, but, “I thought it best to let that process unwind.” And now that the PCRP is over and the PBA’s involvement in it turns out to have been just a delaying action, and now that the courts have enjoined the PBA from doing anything without an EIS and the PBA has made no steps to begin one, he decided to start the conversations on the 18th floor of City Hall going again.

There was a lot of talk in the meeting by various people about work that had been done that could be folded into an EIS but Tony Bullock would have none of it: as far as he’s concerned, nothing has been done about the EIS. Some bits and pieces of past studies may be useful, but not until the EIS starts will anyone know what information will be necessary and valid, what will be acceptable, what will have to be redone, what will have to be done for the first time. “The process,” Bullock said, “has not started.” Every day the PBA does nothing, he said, is another day that nothing happens. The PBA can complain and sulk and fight in court, he said, but there was no way it could avoid the legally-required EIS if it is ever to put a spade in the ground. The choice is entirely theirs: if they want to build a bridge, obey the law. They knew beforehand that an EIS was required, they went through huge machinations to avoid it. A New York State Supreme Court judge has told them they have to do it and a federal judge will probably tell them the same thing.

“Not unless the PBA changes the way it thinks about these issues,” he said, “is anything going to change.” They can talk about delay, but the sole reason for the delay is their continuing refusal to obey environmental law. If they really think bridge expansion matters, then it’s time to stop evading and deflecting, time to start being honest and open. If they really believe there is economic value to expanding bridge and plaza capacity, it’s time for them to do the EIS and build a bridge. They can’t blame everyone but themselves for the delay because they are the cause of the delay, no one else.

Bullock was lucid, direct, tough, and  unambiguous.

Bullock sat directly across the table from Martucci, but he never (as far as I remember; my tape recorder malfunctioned and because I thought it was running I didn’t take as detailed notes as I should have) addressed Martucci directly. Bullock referred to positions the PBA had taken and actions the PBA wanted to take and things it would have to do. He never said, “You’re the chair. Why don’t you stop jerking everybody around and get them to do the right thing?”

He said, as did James Pitts several times in the course of the meeting, the no one could build a bridge at that site except the PBA. If there was going to be expanded bridge and plaza capacity only the PBA could do it. He said that Senator Moynihan could not understand why, if increasing capacity was so important, the PBA had done nothing in the months since Judge Fahey’s order.

When he was done, Martucci said he wouldn’t respond, other than to say that his function that day was to listen and to bring back to his board his impressions of what he had learned. Ordinarily, that kind of statement would be totally without meaning, but Martucci is a man who is fully capable of being lucid and tough. He has in the past argued the PBA’s position as if it had been ordered from On High. He argued nothing at last week’s meeting of the Task Force.

After a good deal of information-sharing and speechifying and questioning by various people, Pitts said he’d hear one or two more comments and then the session would adjourn. Buffalo architect Clinton Brown–who had made a long speech when the meeting began–got up and made a long closing speech. He thanked Martucci for having attended and pontificated on the meaning of the “dialog.” Several other people before and one or two after Brown said nice things about the “dialog.”

Nonsense. There had been no dialog. There was only a presence and the paying of attention, and a few small questions answered.

But, as things go around here, that’s not bad, that may even be a step forward. To my knowledge, this is the first time since things went sour that the chairman of the Public Bridge Authority has taken part in any community conversation that wasn’t a performance, fix, or a lecture. Yes, Martucci spent almost the entire time listening. But at least he did that, and he did none of the preaching and lecturing and hectoring and stonewalling and smoke blowing that have been hallmarks of PBA chairmen’s public utterances these past several years.

I’ve several times said in these pages that I thought things had reached a turning point, that the PBA was finally starting to participate for real, that the current move wasn’t just another ploy. Every time I’ve said something like that I’ve been wrong. The PBA has never used up its capacity to astonish me with its disingenuousness and dishonesty and greed.

Are things different this time? Who knows who was sincere and who was posing and who was there for the record and who was there to start a conversation and who was there to perform and who was there to learn? All I know is, Victor Martucci came and listened, the conversation was for the most part serious and focused and rational, Tony Bullock read out Pat Moynihan’s riot act on the need for a decent job here and the need to stop stalling, and it was, as they say, a start. A real start or one more jive start–only time will tell. I’ll let you know when and what I find out.

copyright 2000 Bruce Jackson

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