(Artvoice  8 March 2001)
Peace Bridge Chronicles #50

Partners, Papers, Worries & Trusts

by Bruce Jackson

Some news, a few opinions, & more questions than we’d like.

The Partnering Group

The Partnering Group held its first public meeting at Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority’s Peace Bridge Plaza office in the early evening of Wednesday, February 28.

The Partnering Group is composed of the mayors of Buffalo and Fort Erie, the president of the Buffalo Common Council, the chair of the Fort Erie Town Council, and the chair and vice-chair of the Public Bridge Authority (PBA). The Public Bridge Authority set up the Partnering Group to oversee the environmental impact study New York Supreme Court Judge Eugene Fahey said was necessary before any construction could begin on a new bridge or plaza. The Partnering Group is one element in the PBA’s attempt to get the public on this side of the river to start trusting it once again.

Only half of the Partnering Group made it to the February 28 meeting: PBA chairman John Lopinski, Buffalo mayor Anthony Masiello, and PBA vice chairman Paul Koessler. Buffalo Common Council president James Pitts was ill and neither of the Canadian politicians showed up or sent a representative.

It wasn’t so much a meeting as a press conference, since the three Group members there didn’t talk to each other but rather to reporters from two newspapers, two tv stations, and one radio station, who comprised most of the audience, if you exclude assistants to Mayor Masiello (3), public relations representatives of the PBA (2), other PBA board members (2), PBA staffers (2), county legislator Al DeBenedetti, and what I supposed was a handful of concerned citizens (4).

John Lopinski, who only a few days earlier had replaced Victor Martucci as PBA chair, thereby occupying that position for the fourth time, opened the meeting.  Mayor Masiello made welcoming remarks and expressed his pleasure at the appointment of Swiss bridge-builder Christian Menn as the PBA’s chief design consultant. Lopinski and Masiello both said the absentees were probably stuck in traffic somewhere. No one in the room mentioned that there was only one place between Fort Erie and Buffalo where anyone ever got stuck in traffic, perhaps because you could look out the windows of the adjoining room and see that bridge traffic was moving briskly that evening.

After the chairman and the mayor finished their introductory remarks, Vincent “Jake” Lamb, the former Parsons Transportation vice president who is directing the environmental impact study of the bridge expansion project, announced the names of the consultant firms hired to handle key aspects of the project, after which he introduced Christian Menn, who spoke briefly.

A Mixed Bag of Consultants

Lamb said that the environmental issues consultant would be Buffalo’s Ecology & Environment and the traffic consultant would be Wilbur Smith Associates of Latham, NY and New Haven, CT. He said there would be two bridge designer/architect consultant teams, one a joint venture headed by Modjeski & Masters (Poughkeepsie, NY) and Buckland & Taylor (Vancouver), the other by the Figg Engineering Group (Tallahassee, FL). The two designer/architect teams had exactly the same role— to “develop and assess bridge concepts (locations & types), bridge aesthetics, bridge cost estimates, input to and participation in Public Involvement activities.” When asked if the two teams were redundant, Lamb said he expected the actual work the groups did would vary, according to the particular areas of expertise each had to offer.

Eugene Figg is well-known to anyone who has followed the Peace Bridge War. He has built several award-winning cable-stayed and arched concrete bridges and he is presently working on the Charles River Bridge in Boston, which was designed by Christian Menn. Figg has visited Buffalo many times over the past three years expressing his interest in the Peace Bridge expansion job, and he has courted just about every politician, political group, community group, corporate interest and newspaper that might influence the decision.

Buckland & Taylor is well-known to anyone who followed the work of the Public Consensus Review Panel last year. They were hired by the PBA as part of the PBA’s last-ditch attempt to keep New York Supreme Court Judge Eugene Fahey from issuing an order forcing them to do an environmental impact study. The Buckland & Taylor engineers imposed delay after delay on the process and finally “decided” that a steel twin span was the only viable option.(See “The Engineers Are Stealing The Train,” Artvoice 24 February 2000, and “The Engineers Speak: Buying the PBA Party Line,” Artvoice 2 March 2000).

The four consultants listed a wide range of subconsultants as parts of their teams. Ecology & Environment, for example, included a recognized expert on Olmsted Parks, Pressley Associates of Cambridge, MA, and Terry Yonker of the Buffalo Ornithological Society. The joint venture listed seven subsidiary organizations and Figg listed eight.

I think it is inconceivable that Figg would have been hired a year ago by the PBA for anything but window dressing, and the combination of him with Christian Menn is promising. But we shouldn’t forget the this-gun-for-hire role that Buckland & Taylor played for the PBA in the Public Consensus Review Panel process.

Will the Buckland & Taylor engineers and designers feel the need to honor and justify their firm’s previous performance for the PBA by insisting on a steel twin span once again or will they be able to say, “The last time we were in Buffalo we were representing a client who wanted us to justify a certain conclusion they’d already reached and we did what the client wanted, but this time the client is asking us to do what’s best for the site and the community so we’re going to really give it an objective look”?

Consultants are always pulled by two masters – the truth and the desires of the people paying the bills. When the consultants are lucky, the people paying the bills want only what the consultants think is the truth. When the people paying the bills have a “truth” they want delivered, the work of consultants can get sticky. We know how Buckland & Taylor performed last time. What will they do this time?

All The News That Fits (what the Buffalo News wants you to know)

In editorials last week, the Buffalo News praised the PBA for hiring Figg and Menn. They’re right: the PBA should be praised for both appointments.

Several people have said to me they’ve noticed improvement lately in how the News covers Peace Bridge matters: more facts, less stuff churned out by the PBA’s press agents, no more of those beastly editorials telling  people in the community we ought to shut up and accept decisions made for us by the Buffalo-Niagara Partnership and the rest of our betters. I agree. I suspect it’s primarily a function of the fact that the PBA is no longer working behind closed doors or at war with the community, so there is no longer as much need for slanted coverage.

But you still must read Buffalo News articles and editorials about Peace Bridge politics with care. In a March 1 article on the Partnering Group meeting, for example, News reporter Patrick Lakamp discussed at length the appointment and qualifications of Menn and Figg, but mentioned only in passing the appointment of Buckland & Taylor, and he nowhere mentioned the delaying and distorting role Buckland & Taylor had played in the PCRP process. In a recap article published on page 1 the following  Sunday, March 4, Lakamp again discussed Menn and Figg, and that time he didn’t name Buckland & Taylor at all.

Lakamp had been there when Buckland & Taylor engineers delayed the PCRP process and, at the end, when they fought diligently for the steel twin span. I saw him. He was there last week when Jake Lamb said Buckland & Taylor was on the job in exactly the same capacity as Figg. I saw him then, too. Was the double omission mere oversight or continuation of the old style of Buffalo News Peace Bridge coverage?

More important, was this Lakamp’s omission or his editors’ cuts? I would bet on the latter. The Buffalo News has long had what can most kindly be called a strange editorial attitude toward anything connected with the Peace Bridge.

If you write a letter to the editor of the News about the Public Bridge Authority, for example, the News will in all likelihood change what you wrote to “Peace Bridge Authority.” Lakamp’s two articles last week continued that deliberate policy of using an incorrect and misleading name for the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority: the phrase “Peace Bridge Authority” appears eight times, “Peace Authority” once, and the single word “authority” forty-two times. The correct name, “Public Bridge Authority” did not appear once.

My consistent notice of this misnaming by the Buffalo News isn’t English professor quibbling. As I’ve frequently pointed out here, the Public Bridge Authority took to calling itself “Peace Bridge Authority,” which exists nowhere in law, as a deliberate part of its plan to distance itself from public scrutiny. I can understand why the PBA, anxious to avoid public scrutiny, used any device at its disposal to get us to stop looking at it closely. But why would the city’s only daily newspaper, ostensibly a purveyor of facts and advertisements, decide (as one of their editors told me they did) to use a misleading name for a public agency?

Beats me. It really does.

This resonates beyond the Peace Bridge. I don’t know as much about other current civic issues as I know about the Peace Bridge, but I do know a lot about the Peace Bridge and I know how consistently distorted the Buffalo News coverage of that story has been and continues to be.

If they’re so willing to mislead us about this construction project on Buffalo’s West Side, if they’re so willing to leave out of their news coverage and editorial commentary key facts we know they have, how, in other key civic issues, can we know when they’re telling us all the news that fits or all the news that fits whoever is beating the drum to which they’re marching that day?

Given what we know about the activist role they played while pretending to be neutral observers and reporters in the Peace Bridge War, why should we trust them about any other project with big bucks at stake? The PBA seems to be working very hard to win our trust these days, and hooray for them. But with the Buffalo News, it’s business as usual. Boo.

The Other Partnership

One of our far-flung correspondents reports that the Buffalo-Niagara Partnership, the only civic organization that opposed a signature span built primarily by local labor in last year’s Public Consensus Review Panel, last week assigned an employee to work on “the Peace Bridge project.” Natalie Harder, their former development director, left that job not long after the PCRP rejected the PBA’s and B-NP’s attempt to get a steel twin span built. Why does the Partnership once again see the need to assign a staff member to the Bridge? Whose interests are they protecting or pursuing this time?

A Surprising Appointment

Speaking of the Buffalo-Niagara Partnership, Andrew Rudnick, that organization’s president and CEO, a dedicated and relentless steel-supporter and signature bridge opponent, was recently named to the board of the Community Foundation of Greater Buffalo. The Community Foundation was one of the principal funders of the Public Consensus Review Panel, the group that, during the Peace Bridge War, helped clarify and focus public opinion and which made accessible a huge amount of information about the PBA’s plans and the implications of those plans for the region.

The Community Foundation has eleven board members, four appointed by banks (HSBC, M&T, Fleet, Key), three by three different judges representing different layers of the judiciary, one by the mayor, and three by the Foundation’s own board. What is curious about Rudnick’s appointment is that it wasn’t made by his long-time patron Robert Wilmers, president of the M&T bank, but rather that he was named by HSBC.

One former Community Foundation member told me he was really surprised at the source of Rudnick’s appointment and “sick, really sick” at the fact of it.

Is this simply a sudden fit of public service activity on Rudnick’s part or was he appointed to that position by the moneymen and powerbrokers to make sure that the Community Foundation didn’t interfere with any other big-profit public works ventures? This bears watching.

Should We Worry About Christian Menn?

Christian Menn is one of the world’s most highly regarded bridge-makers. Jake Lamb shopped him all over Buffalo during his three-day visit here last week. Menn met with the Partnering Group, the Bridge Action committee of the New Millennium Group, political officials, engineering and architecture students, and more. Menn proved himself smart, experienced, and already savvy about many of the interests involved in the Peace Bridge War.

He said he thought this crossing deserved an important bridge and he also said that the current bridge was worth preserving, even though the Parker truss is an eyesore. He said he thinks it important that a bridge builder work within realistic boundaries, that he honor, for example, budgetary constraints. He loves the work of Santiago Calatrava (who studied with him) but, he says, Calatrava doesn’t think about budget. No more than ten percent of a bridge’s budget, he said, should go into aesthetic aspects.

The two questions I heard again and again after his visit were, “What did they tell him his job here was?” and “What happens if he comes up with a twin span?”

Lamb says that Menn was asked to consider the conditions and come up with the best design suggestions he could, nothing more. Did members of the PBA board or did Stephen Mayer or Earl Rowe tell him that what they really wanted? We’ll never know.

All we know for sure is what Menn said publicly while he was here and the quality of work he has done in the past. He has not, in James Pitt’s felicitous phrase, built any ugly bridges. If you look at the bridges Menn has designed and built (such as the Ganter bridge in the canton of Valais, the Reichenau bridge over the Rhine, the Felsenau viaduct over the Aare in Berne), and bridges he has designed for others to build (such as the Charles River bridge now under construction in Boston), you’ll see that his sense of aesthetics goes far beyond ten percent of decorative costs.

The day after the Partnering Group meeting, he told Diane Christian and me that one of the reasons he likes the present bridge is that it comes from “the golden age of bridge design,” a time that produced the George Washington bridge and the Golden Gate bridge, two of his favorites. He loves the arches of the Peace Bridge. “I would like to maintain the bridge,” he said, but “the new one should be an extremely new and elegant bridge.” He sees no reason to copy the present bridge: if you tried to imitate the arches of the old bridge, “you would come to a confusion.” Nearly a century of design separates the existing bridge and whatever new bridge goes up. If the old bridge is maintained and a new bridge built near it, he said, the new bridge should reflect the cutting-edge of 21st century design, not the current bridge’s early 20th century design. “I’m thinking of a cable-stayed bridge with relatively small spans,” he told us.

How committed is he to preserving the old bridge, to designing a new bridge that complements it from a 21st century point of view? “That’s what I’m thinking today,” he said. He told us that before he came here last week he’d read everything he had been sent and could find about the old bridge. He said everything he’d decided before his trip had been revised once he visited the site. It was entirely possible that his ideas of that day would change and change again the longer he was involved in the process and the more involved he became with the communities on either side of the river. “It’s just starting,” he said.

As things stand now, Christian Menn isn’t going to design the Buffalo-Fort Erie bridge. He’s going to tell the PBA if he thinks what the actual designers come up with is a good idea or not, and he’s going to offer improvements to their ideas if he thinks any are needed. But, given his position in the structure of the EIS and the great hoopla his involvement has already engendered in Buffalo, what he suggests will have great weight with the designers and the decision-makers.

There are key issues I don’t think Christian Menn has yet thought through. One is, how do you weigh the aesthetic value of the sweet old bridge (less the ugly Parker truss) against the several years of disruption of life on Buffalo’s West Side rehabilitating that old bridge will require once the new bridge is built? If cost is a key factor (as Menn insists it must be), how will he factor in the long-term costs of a high-maintenance geriatric steel bridge alongside a low-maintenance concrete bridge?

Menn is an engineer. With rare exceptions, engineers are practical people, they’re not dreamers. You give engineers a problem and they solve it for you. You don’t go to engineers with questions like “How should the world be?” You ask engineers “How can I make this happen?” But, within that restriction, there are engineers who try to make things happen in the most elegant way possible. Based on what I know of his work, I think Menn is one of those engineers. It’s really important that, during the many visits he will make to this area in the next few years, people here let him know how they feel about the impact on their lives of long-term rehabilitation and continuing heavy maintenance of the old bridge. He’s got to be reminded that a bridge has to fit more than the physical environment and the PBA’s ostensible budget.

Can We Trust Jake Lamb?

Jake Lamb is presently the key person driving the environmental impact study. The EIS will feed directly into whatever design is actually built. Lamb is coordinating the consultant groups, he set up the complex organization by which all the information will be acquired and through which all the information will filter and be managed. Since he took over the preliminary work for the EIS, the PBA’s two general managers, Earl Rowe and Stephen Mayer, both of them relentless and dedicated steel twin span advocates, have been nearly invisible and almost totally silent. Jake Lamb used to be a strong advocate of the steel twin span; now he says he’s a strong advocate of a full and open process.

Jeff Belt, president of the New Millennium Group and one of the key signature bridge advocates, says he finds “accumulating evidence convincing me to believe that Jake has had an epiphany over this project. Prior to Judge Fahey's ruling,  Jake fought doggedly to drive his client's project through – as I am sure he has learned a civil engineer must do. After the Judge's ruling, Jake's practical mind instructed him to abandon the old plan that had failed and move quickly toward a new plan, as a civil engineer would know he must do. Jake is now speaking and doing the language of civic leadership. He is and has been all along, a civil engineer! I am glad to learn this and more confident that our Peace Bridge project will be a great success.”

Jeff may be right, though there might be another way to put it: before Judge Fahey’s ruling and former PBA chairman Vincent Martucci’s consequent decision to abandon warfare and embrace the environmental impact study process, Jake Lamb had been hired by the PBA to help enact its decision to construct a steel twin span. He did that vigorously. Now he’s been charged with examining all the ways bridge capacity might be expanded here, or if it should be expanded here at all, and he’s doing that with equal vigor—and with a great deal more power. His earlier assignment made him answerable to a small group of people meeting in closed-door sessions down at Peace Bridge Plaza. His present assignment makes him answerable to the community at large. Thus far, he seems to have taken that new assignment very seriously.

Can We Trust the PBA?

A lot more than we could six months ago.

But this is no time for anybody on the signature side to relax: the snakes are still in the grass. Even so, there have been real changes. I don’t believe that Paul Koessler, the newest member of the board and Lopinski’s successor as chairman a year from now, has any allegiance to the old PBA way of thinking and planning that caused so much distrust and engendered so many lousy ideas. Koessler seems to have a good sense of what went wrong and a realistic appreciation of what a signature bridge might do for this community. If Governor Pataki’s replacement for Victor Martucci has any sense of the needs of this community, the old gridlock will not easily reestablish itself.

I’ve heard that the Fort Erie politicians aren’t the least bit happy about the current state of affairs (which may be why they weren’t at the February 28 Partnering Group meeting) and that several members of the PBA were dragged to it either kicking and screaming or sulking and muttering.  But they have been dragged and most of them are realists. Joe Crangle was right when he said that if the Americans on the board ever got their act together, if they ever decided not to walk in lockstep with the steel twin spanners, then things would turn around quickly, and for the better.

I think of a safecracker I knew in Texas 35 years ago. He’d quit safecracking and become a check forger instead. I asked him which he preferred, safes or checks, and he said safes by far. So why had he changed? I thought he’d tell me why forgery was more interesting or profitable or aesthetically satisfying than peeling, punching and blowing safes. No, none of that. He told me that he had gotten older and the physical aspect of the work just got to be too hard for him: he couldn’t climb up on roofs carrying all his tools, cut holes in the roofs, lower himself down on ropes the way he used to. Did he miss safes? Every day. Would he ever crack another one? No, that part of his life was over. It was necessary, he said, to be realistic about these things.

And maybe likewise the PBA. They may miss their steel bridge, but because of Mayor Masiello’s firm refusal to issue the easements and Judge Fahey’s EIS order, they can’t jam it down our throats and they know it. They’re practical. If they can’t build the bridge they want, they’ll build the bridge they can. If it turns out to be a bridge we can all look at with pride, then lucky all of us. They may not all be doing it for the reason some of us would have preferred, but they seem to be doing it, and that, for everyone but the kamikaze moralists among us, is finally what really matters.

copyright 2001 Bruce Jackson

bridge articles page
recent articles page
bruce jackson homepage