(Artvoice   15 February 2001)

Peace Bridge Chronicles #48

The Mayor, the Governor, and Detroit’s First Casualty

by Bruce Jackson
 

 
The Mayor’s Plan
Buffalo Mayor Anthony Masiello has resurrected and expanded his satisfy-everybody-bridge-plan of two years ago. It’s an enhanced version of the plan that produced embarrassed silence and sotto voce wisecracks when city attorney Peter Cutler first proposed it on the mayor’s behalf at the Common Council’s Peace Bridge Task Force on March 29, 1999.

At that time, the mayor proposed ending the Peace Bridge design deadlock by rehabilitating the old bridge and building a three-lane signature bridge adjacent to it. That, Peter Cutler said the mayor said, would let the Fort Erie keep the bridge its mayor Wayne Redekop says his constituents dearly love, and it would give Buffalo a decent border entrance. Nobody at the time took the mayor’s proposal seriously because it seemed more absurd than what the Public Bridge Authority was proposing.

The February 1, 2001, reincarnation of that side-by-side idea has three important modifications:

it locates the new bridge south rather than north of the current bridge, which would mean that bridge plaza wouldn’t require condemnation of nearly so many current houses and apartments as the northern plaza everyone except the mayor currently advocates, and it could take advantage of alignment engineering and research for bridge footings already done by the PBA;
it doubles the size of the new bridge from three to six lanes, bringing to nine the total number of lanes feeding into Front Park;
it endorses the recommendation many people and groups have been making for some time to create an international zone on the Canadian side and shift all truck processing functions over there.


There are problems with the mayor’s plan.

—His nine-lane recommendation is predicated on unquestioning acceptance of the PBA's claim that ever-increasing truck traffic will continue to need more and more lanes across the Niagara River. (Indeed, nothing in his 9-page statement questions any PBA assertion or assumption.) That may have been a reasonable assumption in March 1999,  but not now. Truck traffic is no longer increasing here; it went down last year. Is that decline merely a function of the weak Canadian dollar and peaking-out of the NAFTA benefit, as Buffalo News business reporter Fred O. Williams suggested earlier this month? Is it a result of a weakened American economy? Is it a result of inadequate staffing at the US Customs facility here? Will that downward trend continue? There are only two lanes of the QEW delivering trucks to the border, so why do we need four or five lanes to get them across less than one mile of river? The Canadians are talking about building a new highway to peel some of those trucks off the QEW, but that’s years from happening and, if the economic decline continues, it won’t happen at all.

—The mayor’s document indicates no awareness of what has become one of the key questions in this whole enterprise: Is that area on Buffalo’s west side the optimum place for a huge amount of cross-border truck traffic? The whole idea of necessary expansion must begiven a hard look before we increase lanes at the present site or anywhere else, and that is, presumably, exactly what the environmental impact study (EIS) now underway will do.

—The writers of the mayor's report claim that once the old bridge is repaved it will be fully operational for decades to come. The PBA’s chief consulting engineer and head of its EIS, Vincent “Jake” Lamb (executive vice president of  Parsons Transportation, the parent company of the PBA’s longtime engineering firm, DeLeuw Cather),  says that as far as he knows that’s pretty much true. Many technical people don’t buy it. There hasn't been an underwater inspection for decades, so nobody knows if or how seriously those piers have deteriorated. If the bridge's infrastructure  has deteriorated as much as has been suggested, we're looking at two long-term construction projects that cannot go on at the same time—it’s the city planning equivalent of opening you up to take out your appendix, waiting until you can move without major pain, then opening you up again to take out your gall bladder. Jake Lamb says that core samples from the piers show no deterioration. He said there’s nothing else they can do, short of building a cofferdam (a  watertight enclosure built to make inspections below the waterline) and going down there for a look. Well, why not do that? This is a $200 million project, so what’s a few bucks for a cofferdam to do a bit of essential reality testing?

—It’s an ugly plan. You paste something beautiful onto something ugly and you wind up with something ugly, only bigger. Gresham’s Law works in visuals. You remember the time you looked really good but had a huge zit on the tip of your nose and it was the zit that caught everybody’s attention? It works the same when you put an beautiful bridge right next to an ugly bridge.

Weirdness
I could go on scab-picking at the mayor’s plan, but it would only be specifics and you’ve gotten the general point. The real question to ask about it is this: why did they do it? Why come out with a specific plan now, when the EIS is just starting to take shape and even the PBA has taken its steel twin span design off the table?

One city official said at last week’s meeting of the Common Council’s Bi-National Bridge Task Force that they had these plans around and thought they should introduce them to the conversation because they might help the thinking of the various people working on the EIS. It’s just one more idea in the pot, he said, nothing special. In no way was it meant to interfere with or influence the thinking of the EIS. It was just an idea they had, some drawings they had, something the mayor thought we should think about, and he was offering it, just like any citizen might offer a suggestion.

Sure. Just like the guy with the lightbar on the roof of his patrol car who pulls you over on the highway is just one more guy who wants to chat with you, nobody special, and you can ignore him if you feel like it. Sure you can.

This proposal came out of the mayor’s office at a formative moment in the EIS process. Jake Lamb’s group is right now considering bids from firms wanting to take on various major roles in the EIS. They are right now formulating the composition of the various groups that will be involved in that process and figuring out how their information will funnel into the final recommendations. And here’s the mayor’s office with a lot of hoopla giving the press a very specific design, one that takes as givens factors everyone else now agrees are questions. That’s not a mere neutral submission of one equal idea among others. It’s one of the key players, a major public officer, delivering a plan with two very large and pretty polychrome architect’s drawings before anything else is out there.

I’ve heard three explanations and justifications for this very heavy-handed maneuver, any or all of which are possible:

—The officials of Fort Erie are furious and frustrated at what’s going on over here, they don’t like having their plans held up by US environmental law, and Wayne Redekop is rolling his eyes to the ceiling and looking dazed during meetings of the tripartite steering group set up by the PBA (public officials from Fort Erie, Buffalo, and representatives of the PBA). This public plan  is Mayor Masiello’s way of saying to Redekop and his associates, “We feel your pain.” That would be neighborly, but if true it’s a patronizing model of international relations. Why not just say to them: we don’t want an ugly bridge on our property and you’re not the only guys who get to say what links your town and our city? Why not say to them: stop sulking because the PBA has been forced to obey US environmental law? Why not say: grow up? Why not say to them: the Bridge supports your whole town, it’s made you rich, why can’t you at least let us have something nice to look at? Why not say to them: Go...  I’ll stop before I get into trouble.

—The mayor’s staff people working on this problem convinced him that this design really is the best and he wanted to get it to the public before the EIS confused everybody with too many facts or alternative options. Too bad if that’s true, because there really are far better designs out there, most notably the one proposed in “The Past and Future Front Park,” an August 2000 Cornell University Landscape Architecture and City and Regional Planning MA thesis by Peter William Hedlund. Hedlund came up with a fabulous design that extends the restored Front Park over the Thruway, so the Park has direct access to the lake and anybody can reach Front Park and LaSalle Park on foot without being squashed by a semi.

—Mayor Masiello isn’t the least bit serious about this, but he’s been stung by all the comments in the press and by other politicians about his fence-straddling, waffling, and lack of initiative and leadership on this major public works project. He’s got an election coming up next fall.Even though he’s already got a million bucks in his warchest and there are no realistic contenders on the horizon, there’s no point letting this high visibility issue sit out there unattended.

The EIS
The most important recent public moment in the Peace Bridge War was last November 15, when PBA chairman Victor Martucci called a press conference to announce that the PBA would end its appeal of Judge Eugene Fahey’s order that it conduct a full environmental impact study. Not only would the PBA do the EIS, Martucci said, but it would give up all permits it had gotten from all government agencies on both sides of the border. It was back to square one: the PBA would examine the question anew, it would heed community concerns and needs, it would make the process open and accessible.

If true, that would be a radical change from the way things had run thus far. The process Martucci outlined didn’t guarantee a signature bridge, but it at least meant that for the first time the various interests would have to announce themselves publicly, and whatever choice the PBA made might be subject to some measure of public scrutiny.

That process is now underway. The PBA has invited bids from consultants to deal with various major functions. The process is being directed by Jake Lamb, which leaves some critics nervous: Lamb, as I noted above, is a senior executive of Parsons, and it was Parsons that came up with and rationalized the steel twin span. Lamb says he and everyone down at Peace Bridge Plaza are now fully behind the EIS process and the process will be so open that no one will have any worry about further chicanery or foolishness. We can only hope. And watch.

The EIS is to be overseen by a tripartite group composed of officials from the Buffalo, Fort Erie, and the PBA. Fort Erie officials, as I said, remain unenthusiastic about the process: it has the possibility of interfering with the output of their beloved cash cow. Buffalo officials, as the mayor’s recent effort demonstrates, can be erratic. The Common Council’s representatives to the process seem to have stayed on course thus far. The PBA–well, we know about the PBA.

So we’ve got a real interest in the openness of the process. It’s a big project, and some of it is being designed on the fly. Artvoice has asked Jake Lamb to write an article describing the structure, the timeline, the places where the public can have input and can see what’s going on. We’ll publish that article here as soon as we receive it, and we’ll also publish your reactions to it.

Power and Scrutiny
One thing to watch out for is whether or not the scoping—the questions the actual EIS attempts to answer—is limited to how to best build an expanded crossing here or if it also asks where the expanded crossing should best be located, or if one is needed at all. We have no regional government, no effective regional planning agency, no university program that objectively tackles this kind of thorny question, but it is the key question in this entire process.

Some critics of the PBA have faulted it for failing to look at alternative sites for a truck crossing. That’s unreasonable and perhaps even unfair. Why should the PBA undertake a plan that might conclude it should pretty much go out of business? They have a bridge that, on the whole and from their point of view, works pretty well. It just needs a bit of expansion. It provides jobs for almost an entire town, plus untold numbers of subcontractors and consultants. Why risk throwing all that away? Why give away all that power?

Power is as addictive as heroin and, for some people, as pleasurable as sex. Unlike the former, it’s legal, and unlike the latter, you can engage in it all day long when you’re out of the house and your spouse won’t divorce you if it gets in the papers. In Godfather II Michael Corleone famously said, “If anything in life is certain, if history has taught us anything, it is that you can kill anyone.” He might equally have said, “If anything in life is certain, if history has taught us anything, it is that nobody gives up power willingly.”

The PBA will ask the questions that serve its interests. It will take a good deal of public scrutiny and attention to make sure this EIS also asks the questions that really matter to the rest of us. We’re in a better place than we were a year ago, but this surely is no time for complacency.

Your Governor and mine
Governor Pataki was in town last week courting the African-American vote for the election a scant 21 months hence. All the polls show he has has a solid lead on both of his likely opponents—former U.S. Housing Secretary Andrew Cuomo and New York Comptroller Carl McCall—but he no doubt remembers the time not very long ago when people said Hillary Clinton didn’t stand a chance of getting elected senator from New York.

While he was here, the governor said that what happened at the Peace Bridge was a matter for the community to decide.

That, folks, is Albany jive. The stalemate at the Peace Bridge was entirely predicated on Governor Pataki’s appointments to the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority. For most of the time since he’s been in office he’s controlled all five of the American PBA appointments; for the past two years he’s controlled four of them.

Buffalo attorney and former Erie County Democratic chief Joe Crangle, who represented the Common Council on the Public Consensus Review Panel, has long said that any time Governor Pataki wanted the mess at the Peace Bridge over all he had to do was order it, and that if the governor had wanted us to have a signature bridge all he had to do was tell his representatives to build us one.  “People say, ‘What if five Americans on the board vote one way and the five Canadians vote the other?’ I say [Crangle said], ‘If the five Americans voted one way then the Canadians would vote with them. What else could they do?’” They could vote a stalemate, but Crangle, ever a practical politician, says they’re too rational for that. Fort Erie has far more to lose from stalemate than Buffalo does: “Their whole economy depends on the bridge. For Buffalo, it’s just one thing among many.”

At several public events over the past two years Governor Pataki has said he favored a signature span, but his appointees to the PBA never voted that way until the November shift in position. When Victor Martucci became PBA chairman a year ago he was a fierce advocate for the twin span. It was only because of Judge Eugene Fahey’s order that the PBA conduct a full EIS and the pending lawsuit in Federal court that he changed course and got the other members of the PBA to do likewise.

So where is the governor now? It depends whose support he’s courting these days. Support for a politican running for office takes two shapes: votes and money. Martucci recently announced his intention to resign from the PBA. We’ll get some idea whether the governor is courting money or votes when he names Martucci’s replacement.
 
The Detroit Gang
The people who run Detroit’s Ambassador Bridge who want to set up a privately-owned and operated bridge here have set up an operation they’re calling the “Ambassador Niagara Signature Bridge Group.” It’s got very pretty stationery with a white single-pylon cable-stayed bridge on a gold field as their logo. They’ve got one of the areas top PR firms–Paragon–handling publicity, and they hired James B. Kane, who headed Pat Moynihan’s Buffalo office these past several years, as “regional director.”

Kane was instrumental a year ago in bringing them here to perform for the Public Consensus Review Panel. At that time, he helped them meet with just about every public official connected with cross-border trade in this area and every journalist writing about it—presumably on Senator Moynihan’s behalf. He is very well connected here in both political and business communities. He has declined to give interviews about what he’s doing for Ambassador now and what Ambassador is up to in Buffalo, but promises a press conference later this month in which all will be revealed and all questions will be answered.

The Ambassador group has also issued announced that it has retained Hiscock and Barclay, a Buffalo law firm, to represent it in local affairs, and that the firm’s managing director, Mark McNamara will head up the legal team. McNamara has represented Ambassador here for the past year, so I don’t know what’s newsy about that, unless it’s to say, “We don’t just have a local lawyer, we’ve got a local law firm working for us. We’re serious about this.”

Have no doubt: they are serious. They’re pouring a fortune into their Buffalo operation–neither MacNamara nor Kane nor Paragon comes cheap, and neither does the office Ambassador has set up in Olympic Towers. And this is only the start: they’ll soon begin their own environmental impact study, totally separate from the one done by the PBA.

The PBA’s study will presumably study all crossing options at or near the present site, but it’s hard to believe they’ll take a serious look at anything that doesn’t land just about where the present bridge lands. Ambassador seems to be assuming that the best way to handle the congestion is to split truck and auto traffic, to leave auto traffic at the current site and move truck traffic to a new site adjacent to the International Bridge (the railroad bridge) a mile or so down river.

If that were to happen it would accomplish two things: it would leave the PBA with the low rent part of border traffic and a bridge getting ever more expensive to maintain, and it would destroy the Park Nobody Knows on Squaw Island, part of which would provide several much-needed ball fields, and a huge segment of which has some of the city’s most beautiful park land. (Wonder what I’m talking about? See Penelope Creeley’s article elsewhere in this issue.)

The Ambassador group got a huge windfall when gambling went into Windsor, Ontario–their revenues from their Detroit bridge operation surged immediately as auto traffic expanded. But they’re businessmen, they’re not gamblers. If they’re poised to pour a huge amount of money into a war with the Public Bridge Authority, it’s because they expect to be able to take a much huger amount of money out of here.

One Down
The Ambassador Niagara Signature Bridge Group has claimed its first Buffalo casualty: as soon as Ambassador announced that it was being represented by Hiscock and Barlcay, Robert Kresse, who has an “of counsel” relationship with that firm, resigned from the Common Council’s Binational Peace Bridge Task Force. He didn’t want to have or give the appearance of a conflict of interest.

I don’t understand the legal niceties here—Mark McNamara has been sitting in on task force meetings as Ambassador’s Buffalo attorney for some time now and nobody was bothered by the fact that Bob Kresse is of counsel at that firm and a member of the task force. I don’t know anyone sane who would question Bob Kresse’s rectitude in this or any other matter. Maybe it’s a sign of that rectitude that he felt the expanded role the firm would be playing in Ambassador’s Buffalo affairs required him to withdraw from active involvement in Peace Bridge matters.

Kresse is off the panel but Jim Kane, who previously sat on the task force as a representative of Senator Moynihan, is now sitting on the task force as a representative of the Ambassador Bridge people in Detroit. When he worked for Moynihan, Kane was representing the community—us. Now he’s representing reclusive Grosse Point, Michigan, businessman Manuel Maroun. That’s not a conflict of interest, that’s an interest plain and simple. No one else on the task force represents a single businessman; every other member of the task force represents a community group or public agency.

I have no problem with Jim Kane being on the panel: he’s up front about whom he represents and why he’s there and it’s surely better having a representative of the Detroit gang in a place where we can find him than in a place where we’ve always got to be ferreting him out. What’s unfortunate is the other part—Bob Kresse’s fine sense of legal ethics that forces him to withdraw from this important public conversation.

His resignation from the task force is huge loss to the community. He is knowledgeable, smart, persistent, and thoughtful. The Public Consensus Review Panel wouldn’t have done the work it did were it not for him and the Common Council’s Task Force wouldn’t be as useful as it now is were it not for him. No doubt Ambassador will be a good client for Hiscock and Barclay and they’ll run up a huge number of billable hours before they’re done with their phase of the Peace Bridge War. I’m sure they didn’t hire Hiscock and Barclay to neutralize one of the most important voices of reason and common sense in this long and absurd affair, but that’s the effect of their choice. I sure wish they’d hired some other law firm.
 

copyright 2001 Bruce Jackson
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