(Artvoice 30 November 2000)
Peace Bridge Chronicles #47
 

ROBERT MOSES IS FINALLY
DEAD IN BUFFALO
Peace Comes to Peace Bridge Plaza

by Bruce Jackson
 

THE MOSES MODEL

Buffalo and Erie County have long operated on the Robert Moses model of public works. That is a model in which a powerful person or group of persons decides, for whatever reason, that a certain piece of work should be done. That person or group of persons then amasses the financial, legal and political resources to do it. Anyone who gets in the way is ignored and, if that doesn’t work, crushed. When the project is completed and doesn’t deliver as promised, it is expanded and amended: you pour more concrete, more money. Moses, for example, built parkways and expressways in New York City, which he said were needed to reduce congestion, and every one of them increased congestion, whereupon he built more parkways and expressways, destroying viable  neighborhoods and green space in the process.*

Anyone who pays even marginal attention to public affairs in this region can recite our Local Litany of Moses-class Disasters, all those public works and private construction projects that promised much but (save for a few people who got rich on them) only subtracted from the quality of our lives:

  —the Thruway that cuts the city off from its waterfront and routes high pollution truck traffic through populated areas;
 — the Scajacwada Expressway that bisects a middle-class neighborhood and an Olmsted park;
 —the suburban UB campus that yanked a huge middle class population group and its associated services out of the city and deprived the university of the great resources a city can provide;
 —the dark and ugly and inadequate convention center that breaks one of Joseph Ellicott’s functional radii;
 —the huge HSBC office building that squats across the foot of Main Street, literally blocking out downtown’s light;
 — the mass transit system designed to increase access to downtown that all but destroyed downtown retail business and then stopped halfway to its suburban destination because some people felt it would make access to the wealthy suburbs too easy to the nonwhite poor.
There are others, but you get the point and this is already depressing enough.

Buffalo and Erie County are not special in this kind of stupidity: other cities at other phases in their history made the same kinds of blunders. But we managed to do it a lot over a fairly brief period of time, and that time coincided with a decline in the region’s economy. Most of the reasons for that decline were beyond they city’s or county’s control: it wasn’t local decisions that sent big steel elsewhere. Who’s responsible for that decline is far less important than the fact of it. And the consequence: we can’t afford to keep repeating that kind of error.

The decision by the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority to build a steel companion span alongside the decaying present bridge was worthy of that list of blunders, and it was made in the classic Robert Moses manner. Public hearings were held, but they were sham hearings because the decision about what would be built had been taken before a single public hearing ever took place. Information was given to the public, but it was deceptive and distorted. The PBA was appointed to serve the public but in fact it took marching orders from undisclosed private interests. And the city’s only daily newspaper covered the story by interviewing only people the Bridge Authority wanted interviewed and, for a long time, by confining much of its coverage to rewrites of Bridge Authority press releases.

Everything else being equal, the Peace Bridge expansion project would have proceeded just like all those other Robert Moses-type projects: the steel twin span would have gone up, it would have been a disaster, the people who foisted it on us would be dead and gone, and the survivors would be stuck with it forever.

But this time something anomalous happened on the way to the future: an informed, passionate, persistent, and consistently growing public opposition to the bridge project grew and wouldn’t go away. With only a few exceptions (Congressman John Lafalce and West Side county legislator Al DeBenedetti are the only two who come to mind), all the local politicians lined up on the side of the people. Lawsuits were filed and the very deep pockets of the PBA couldn’t make them go away.

And finally, on November 15,  the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority threw in the towel (or seemed to). Victor Martucci, the Authority’s chairman, told a hastily-called press conference that the PBA was abandoning all its current construction plans, it had given back all construction permits it had received from all American and Canadian permitting agencies, it would not appeal Judge Eugene Fahey’s order that it perform a full environmental impact study on its proposed bridge and plaza construction projects, and it would immediately begin the EIS it had fought so long and assiduously to avoid.

Everything, Martucci said, was now on the table, nothing was locked in, and the process henceforth would involve the public and would be fully op
 

WEIRDNESS

His comments were immediately followed by happy and largely-platitudinous speechifying by John Lopinski (vice chair of the PBA), Buffalo Mayor Anthony Masiello, Common Council President James Pitts (who announced that he was changing the name of the Council’s Superspan/Signature Bridge Task Force to the Binational Bridge Task Force), Debbie Zimmerman (chair of Ontario’s Niagara Regional Council), and Erie County Executive Joel Giambra.

It was one of those perfectly weird moments politicians and lawyers seem to find less bizarre than the rest of us: people who had until moments before been ripping and clawing at one another are suddenly smiling and purring and making kiss-kiss, people who had vowed never to give up the ship are suddenly asking sailors from the other side to come aboard and help them sail it to a mutually-agreeable lagoon. Golly gee-whiz, it was just swell!

If you didn’t know about the huge amount of work put in and great amount of money expended over the past three years by the New Millennium Group, the Episcopal Church Home, the Olmsted Conservancy, a score of other groups and organizations, Bruno Freschi, T.Y. Lin, Gene Figg, and countless other individuals, nothing said by Martucci or any other podium-speaker at that press conference would have let you know that a war had been fought on this territory.

And if you looked at the smiling faces of the PBA’s American and Canadian press agents as they listened to Martucci read his prepared statement and field questions from the invited and uninvited press, nothing would have told you that over the past year the PBA had paid and those press agents had spent at least a million dollars of public funds on a huge disinformation campaign that consisted of scores of misleading spot ads on all Buffalo commercial television stations and a series of orchestrated letters published in The Buffalo News. That campaign was designed to put pressure on Mayor Masiello and the Common Council so they would issue the permits the PBA needed to start construction, it was designed to embarrass the Olmsted Conservancy and Episcopal Church Home so they would abandon their lawsuits, and it was designed to pressure Judge Eugene Fahey so he would rule in the PBA’s favor if they didn’t back off.

If you walked in off the street with no knowledge of the bitter history, you would have thought you’d come across a public agency operating in a perfectly fine way: open, fair, collaborative, friendly.

And, if everything Victor Martucci said was true and everything he implied comes to pass, it will be all of that. Right now, we’ve got to assume that’s where things are and will be. In practical politics you get nowhere brooding about the past; you’ve always got to be looking to the future. The past is for historians—and for those who want to have some sense of what traps might be in the apparently smooth roadway ahead.
 

WHAT VICTOR MARTUCCI SAID

Martucci opened with this:

We’re here to announce that the Authority has begun a binational integrated environmental process that combines the proposed actions involving bridge capacity expansion, US plaza modernization and connecting roads. We are confident that this binational integrated process will lead to the final binational solution to relieving existing congestion.

I want to make this point absolutely clear at the outset: the Authority is committed to a process that is open, fair and inclusive, whereby every practical option will be given full and thorough review. The Authority has been working over the past several months to determine how best to proceed in response to Judge Fahey’s decision. Many meetings have been held with Canadian and US officials, permitting agencies and special interest groups to assess possible paths to a resolution. As a board with binational responsibilities we have actively investigated every scenario that would lead to a positive resolution of this issue.

The authority will develop this binational integrated environmental process in compliance with all applicable United States, New York State, City of Buffalo, Town of Fort Erie, and Canadian Federal and Provincial laws and regulations, including, but not limited to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, the National Environmental Policy Acts, The New York State Environmental Quality Review Act, and the City of Buffalo Environmental Review Ordinance. We see this as the quickest and most productive path to expand capacity, relieve congestion, and comply with current legal rulings.

This, as just about everything else Martucci said at that press conference, is perfectly reasonable and responsible. But a bizarre fact undergirds it: this is the chairman of an international public agency telling a press conference that the agency he directs will act legally. Normally, we assume public agencies will act legally. Public agencies are supposed to act legally. Public agencies aren’t supposed to be looking for ways to avoid obeying the law.

“Supposed to” and “does” aren’t the same: for years, the PBA has been fighting tooth and nail to avoid New York environmental law.

In the rest of his statement and in the question period following, Martucci again and again referred to public involvement in the process. He must have used the phrase “binational integrated environmental process” twenty-five times. He spoke of the need for consideration of neighborhood needs and concerns, for consensus and understanding, for everything—in other words—for which everybody on the other side has been asking, suing, and pleading since this started.

For years, Fort Erie has been the PBA’s pawn and Buffalo has been its nemesis. According to Martucci, that’s all over: the three are now full partners.  “We strongly believe that the proposed bi-national integrated environmental process clearly defines respective roles and responsibilities of the Authority , the city of Buffalo, the town of Fort Erie, and the public, so that consensus can be reached regarding a preferred alternative. We have a long way to go, but we are committed to a process that is open, and inclusive, and whereby every practical option will be given a full and thorough review. Each step will take as long as necessary to get it right and we’ll work with our partners expeditiously to ensure the optimum binational plan is reached.”

He was, more than anything else, a proponent of clarity and openness:

“I think as long as the process is open and it’s fair and everybody has a fair hearing, every option gets its thorough review, I think in the end, although you’re going to have some people happy and some people unhappy with the final result, that everybody will come away from the process confident and satisfied that the process was done right. And that’s our commitment.”
 

GETTING HERE

In the Q&A following the formal statement, Andrew Siff of WKBW asked why it took more than seven months since Judge Fahey’s ruling to get here. “Frankly,” Martucci said,

 it’s a very complicated process. We don’t have, as a binational authority, the very narrow interests that several of the interested parties that have expressed their opinions on this have. We’ve been having several meetings over the course of the last few months with community leaders, with government leaders on both sides of the border, with special interest groups. And as a binational organization we have a fiduciary responsibility to examine every option that was available to us. And after a very extensive and very comprehensive review, after reaching out to the community on both sides of the border, we reached the conclusion that the best path for us to follow is this integrated bi-national environmental review process. It gets us to expanded capacity the quickest and it addresses the concerns and the needs of the community on both sides of the border.
I’m sure that’s all true, but he probably could have said the same thing more economically: “Our lawyers told us there was no way we were going to get out from under Fahey’s ruling.” That’s basically what he said to me when I asked him the same question the following day: “The judge’s ruling changed the landscape,” he said.

Fahey’s ruling didn’t happen in a vacuum. Important judicial decisions rarely do.

One of the key factors in keeping this alive was the Public Consensus Review Panel, initiated by then-county executive Dennis Gorski’s office and funded by Erie County, the Community Foundation, the Margaret L. Wendt Foundation, and the City of Buffalo.

The PCRP did three hugely important things. It provided a fair forum where a very wide range of community, commercial, and political groups could participate in the process on an equal footing. It provided occasions where the public could listen to and comment on what various groups and individuals had to say about various aspects of this. Perhaps most important, it kept the bridge issue alive while the court cases were being developed and decided. The PCRP was a true educational forum. There was nothing like it anywhere else in the process. The Common Council’s Bridge Task Force had some of the same aims, but it never had that kind of visibility or that measure of resources.

Rich Tobe, now at the Community Foundation but previously Gorski’s director of development, is largely credited with being the person who got the various elements of the PCRP together. He told me a year ago that one reason he thought the PCRP was necessary was there had to be a forum in which the issues raised by the New Millennium Group could be given fair hearing. All those young professionals, he said, were coming up with important data and raising important questions that were being ignored by the PBA. Another reason, he told me recently, was all four funders of the PCRP thought the courts were the least preferable place to resolve a major public policy issue.

As it turned out, the PCRP didn’t only give voice to people the PBA wanted kept silent. It also kept the whole enterprise alive long enough for legal opposition to take shape and become effective.

The Common Council’s Bridge Task Force, organized and chaired by Council President James Pitts, bracketed the PCRP: it was there before the PCRP was set up, and it took up the work again when the PCRP was dismantled.

Senators Moynihan and Schumer never wavered in their insistence that Buffalo and Fort Erie should have a bridge that made as much aesthetic and ecological sense as commercial sense. Mayor Masiello, after some initial fuzziness and waffling was key: had he folded on the permit the PBA needed to begin construction much of this would have been mooted out long ago.

Robert Moses knew that once he ripped open the ground it was all but impossible to stop a project. The city’s refusal to issue the permits and Judge Fahey’s order kept the PBA from breaking ground. The judge’s final order meant they could do nothing without going through the very people who had been gathered around the table for the PCRP. Victor Martucci said, “The judge’s order changed the landscape,” but the details of that landscape had already been elegantly etched by the people who took part in the Public Consensus Review Panel, as was the model of public participation the Panel developed.

With one difference: the Town of Fort Erie and the Public Bridge Authority both refused to join the panel. Now, according to PBA chair Martucci, they’re both happy to take part in the continuing conversation.
 

WHAT ABOUT BUFFALO?

For Buffalonians, perhaps the most important phrase in the first part of Martucci’s statement was “the City of Buffalo Environmental Review Ordinance.” The PBA never paid any attention to Buffalo ordinances before. It bought Fort Erie and it ignored Buffalo. Judge Fahey’s order last spring telling the PBA they would have to do an unsegmented environmental impact study (which meant they could not pretend the bridge and plaza were separate projects) meant that the PBA could not longer ignore Buffalo.

The last time around, the two lead agencies overseeing all of this on the American side—the New York State Department of Transportation and the United States Coast Guard——couldn’t care less about Buffalo’s needs, interests or condition. This time Buffalo has one of the primary seats at the table.The City of Buffalo–the mayor’s office and the Common Council—will be one of the four lead agencies in the environmental review.

That single fact perhaps makes this announcement from the PBA different from all other announcements by the PBA. This time we will have people answerable to us assigned to watch what those people are doing. The PBA’s staff will be legally-bound to answer all questions our representatives think have to be asked. If they fail to provide those answers or if the answers aren’t good enough, they do not get to turn one shovelful of Buffalo earth.
 

ATTENDANCE

Notably absent from the November 15 press conference were three long-term steel twin-span advocates: Fort Erie Mayor Wayne Redekop, U.S. Congressman John Lafalce, and Buffalo Niagara Partnership president and CEO Andrew Rudnick.

Martucci said that Redekop and Lafalce would have joined the proceedings but had prior commitments that took them out of town. Redekop sent a representative;. Lafalce did not. No one said anything about Rudnick or the Partnership. Rudnick didn’t show up at the meeting of Pitts’ Bridge Task Force the next day, either.
 

REACTIONS

Thus far, reactions of people who have been deeply involved in the battle have been cautiously optimistic.

Jeff Belt, president of the New Millennium Group, said: “I am very happy about the Public Bridge Authority's decision to scrap their plan to twin the Peace Bridge and expand the Front Park plaza—at least until a fair, open and non-segmented Environmental Impact Statement can be completed. After the Public Consensus Review Panel voted to recommend an all new bridge and plaza system and the PBA responded by closing a lane of the bridge, I feared that we were in for a long period of punishment.” Belt also said that in the course of the long debate he “learned about the importance of parks and communities. If we approach the Peace Bridge project with creativity and boldness, we could not only restore the Front Park Presidio, we could actually implement Frederick Law Olmsted's original vision for that park. We could extend the Terrace to the water's edge by decking over part of Interstate 190. A restored and expanded Front Park would be an enormous asset for Buffalo. It could catalyze renaissance in the West Side.”

Andrea Schillaci, president of the Olmsted Conservancy, one of the litigants in the lawsuit that got the PBA to reverse its position, said,

 The way we see it is that we got what we came for. We wanted the PBA to do a non-segmented EIS.  That's what Judge Fahey said they have to do and that is what they have said they will do.  We are in the process of putting together a team to work on this issue going forward.  We are very excited to have an opportunity to participate in this process in a meaningful way and intend to devote as much of our time, energy and resources as it needs to be done well. We don't see it as the end but really just the beginning. We fought hard for a chance to participate and that is what we plan to do.

Edward Cosgrove, former Erie County DA, member of the Public Consensus Review Panel and the Common Council’s Bridge Task Force, was both hopeful and cautious: “We’ll know what this is worth when we see who they name to run it. We’ll know the first time you go down to where they’re doing the work and say, ‘I’d like to see what’s in that file drawer.’ In the interim, we have to be optimistic.”
 

WHAT’S NEW AT THE NEWS

Not much.

The Buffalo News maintains its formal policy of never referring to the Public Bridge Authority by its legal name. Instead it uses “Peace Bridge Authority,” the name the PBA adopted as part of its strategy to convince people it was a private corporation rather than a public agency.

And the News continues acting as flack for the Authority. There was, for example, “Peace Bridge: Deck fixes delayed; timeline uncertain,” a non-story by Patrick Lakamp on page 1 of the second section of Monday’s paper. Lakamp’s first paragraph was: “The Peace Bridge Authority will try to put off redecking the existing Peace Bridge until a new crossing - whether a twin   span or a signature bridge - is built and opened to traffic, officials said Monday.”

What’s news about that? The plan has always been to put off redecking until a new bridge was up.

Something worrisome does turn up later in the article: “The new capital plan shows bridge construction starting in 2007, after a four-year environmental review. ‘We're all hoping we can pull that back and shorten the amount of time for that (study),’ said Stephen F. Mayer, general manager for operations at the Peace Bridge.”

Mayer has long rattled the saber of the serious consequences that would follow a legal EIS and he has often doubled the time other experts said it would take to do one. Is he being serious now or is he just setting us up for more high-pressure techniques a year or two from now, when the PBA hopes the organized opposition that got us to this point will have moved on to other community issues?

It’s hard to forget how the operators of the bridge tried to whipsaw the community last summer. They shut down one of the bridge lanes for repair work during the heaviest daytime traffic hours and did no repair work in the late night hours when there was little traffic—just the opposite of the way such elective repairs are handled everywhere else. All of Martucci’s fine talk of community and openness is swell, but where will we be if last summer’s traffic-jam blackmail is repeated a year or so from now?
 

WHOSE PETARD DID THE HOISTING?

The great irony, which cannot be lost on all ten members of the PBA, is that it was the Canadians who complained for the past two years that the Americans were stalling their truck traffic over mere aesthetic considerations, but in the end it turned out to be Canadian recalcitrance about aesthetics (“a twin span or no span at all”) that helped stop this steel twin abomination dead in its tracks.

Had the PBA, The Buffalo News, and the Buffalo Niagara Partnership played it straight with the public, had not they mounted and touted those bogus design charettes, had they not treated the American public as if they were morons (who other than a moron would honestly believe for a second that a bridge and where the bridge lands are separate construction projects?), then this entire project almost certainly would have sailed through a far simpler and less suspicious and less informed EIS than the one that will take place now. Recent data about the far higher rates of lung disorders around the bridge plaza and the correlation between diesel emissions and cancer might very well have entered the process anyway, but there would not have been nearly so much time for public knowledge, suspicion and fear to develop about that data.

Most people I’ve talked to are pretty much convinced that if the PBA had gone for an elegant design back when Pat Moynihan, Bruno Freschi, and the SuperSpan group suggested it, back when the Americans were thinking more of design than environmental impact,  they’d be well into construction by now. It wouldn’t be the steel bridge the PBA wanted—which would have meant some steel companies that were looking forward to huge construction and maintenance profits would have been disappointed—but it would be a six-lane bridge that could have handled those trucks full of Canadian goods heading south. Their own intransigence and hypocrisy were, finally, their undoing. That and their contempt for the legitimacy of United States law: they saw US law as just another inconvenience; they didn’t understand that it is a fact.

The NMG, Episcopal Church Home, Olmsted Conservancy and Judge Fahey were instruments in what happened, but the lawsuits would have been unnecessary and the NMG  would have been deprived of this as an issue had the Canadians and the PBA been willing to settle for a win with a small ‘w’ rather than going for broke.
 

QUESTIONS THAT REMAIN

Every environmental impact study begins with “scoping,” a process in which the broad boundaries of the project to be evaluated are set out. Everything that follows is predicated on how things are defined in the scoping stage.

The scoping process that will soon start will give us an idea of how serious and honest the PBA is about all of this. Will the PBA and Fort Erie agree, for example, that the EIS should consider not just the best way to expand capacity at the current site, but whether the current site is the best place to expand capacity or whether expansion will fix problems that improving customs operations will not? Will it define the project in purely local terms or as a regional issue?

The answer to these questions will also influence what happens to the lawsuit currently in Federal court. That suit, filed by West Side community groups and residents, has several parts, only some of which were answered at the PBA’s press conference. There still remain questions about whether or not the PBA will admit it is subject to the Freedom of Information Act, if it will obey all environmental laws, if the Coast Guard has formally taken back its finding of no significant impact, if it will compensate the litigants for the attorney’s fees that got us to this apparently harmonious point.“If they don’t consider alternate locations,” said attorney Robert Knoer, “there will be a lawsuit challenging the EIS at the end.”

Someone at the press conference asked Martucci if the crossing could be elsewhere and he responded: “I think the process itself is going to define that. We have to set objectives and criteria for the process and we’ll be working with our partners, the City of Buffalo and the Town of Fort Erie, as well as the public, to define what those objectives are going to be.” Well, the question was “could.” Since Martucci had said that everything was open he could have said “Sure.” But he didn’t, instead he came up with a carefully-worded answer that was either vague or evasive. Or perhaps he didn’t fully understand the importance of the question. We won’t know which it was until the scoping process is well under way. Clearly, the scoping process demands careful watching.
 

SOMETHING HAPPENED

There is a reason the power brokers prefer the Robert Moses model of public works projects: it is fast and it is efficient. You see a need, you decide what needs doing, and you do it. It’s all so manly, so godly.

The other way, the consensus way, seems slower and much more cluttered. You have all these meetings and you have to deal with the questions raised in them. You have to listen to all these individuals and groups, some of them thorny, some of them angry, some of them screwball, some of them with interests directly contrary to yours. You have to deal with people who can’t be bought and sold. Instead of merely satisfying some agency’s technical requirements to get a permit you have to first satisfy a score of groups asking questions about why you should be asking for that permit in the first place. It’s such a bother. And it is so damned slow.

It is indeed slower, but that doesn’t mean it’s less efficient. Getting someplace quickly means only that you got there quickly; it doesn’t mean that you were heading in the right direction in the first place. If everything is as it seems, as Victor Martucci and the PBA’s chief engineering consultant Jake Lamb say, then there has been a real change in direction of the whole Peace Bridge expansion project and we will all have a voice in where we go and how we get there.

I think something real has happened. There has been a major change in the way things are done around here. I think what just happened at Peace Bridge Plaza and what happened when the state was forced to uncover rather than bury the Erie Canal’s commercial slip makes it unlikely that any industrial group or public officials will, in the foreseeable future, act in terms of the Robert Moses model in Buffalo. There’s a generation of young-to-middle-aged professionals who cut their political teeth on these two projects and they’re not likely to go away when the convention center proposal resurfaces or when the preliminary study of Kaleida’s plan to move Children’s Hospital comes back into play, or whenever the next project down the line gets to the point where it looks at all real.

The Peace Bridge War and the Commercial Slip Affair gave people around here the idea that they don’t have to watch and accept while their neighborhoods and conditions of life are altered irrevocably because of decisions made in closed rooms by people who gave no thought at all to their rights and needs. Something good may really have happened here.

Some stories do have happy endings. But don’t turn out the lights yet: we’re still a long way from the end of this one.

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*The best source of information about the way Robert Moses spent $27 billion and reconfigured New York’s landscape is Robert A. Caro’s magisterial Pulitzer Prize-winning The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, Knopf, NY, 1974.
 
 
copyright 2000 Bruce Jackson