(Artvoice 29 March 2001)
Peace Bridge Chronicles #53
The PBA Throws a Party:
Talk, Food, Furies and Scorpions
by Bruce Jackson
A Puzzling Address
The Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority had an event in the Mary Seaton Room at Kleinhans Music Hall on March 22.
The invitation was to the “Peace Bridge Strategic Gateway Address.” I have no idea what that means and neither, I suspect, does anyone else. At some point there may have been a plan to deliver real information from the recently-hired technical consultants, but that's not how it turned out. What it turned out to be was 47 minutes of mostly-innocuous feel-good speechifying by PBA officers and Buffalo and Fort Erie politicians, interrupted for a short, very well-made high-tech video, the point of which seemed to be very much at odds with the speeches.
Followed by a party.
The party was catered by Oliver’s. There were two bars, each serving six American and six Canadian wines; two meat tables, each with a large turkey breast, a large chunk of roast beef, rolls, horseradish sauce and another sauce I didn't try; two pasta tables, each with two kinds of pasta; and, in the middle of it all, a huge table overflowing with a grand variety of pastry treats. For those who got stuck in conversation before their appetites were sated, a squad of waiters constantly patrolled the room, carrying trays of chicken satay, little shrimp thingys, and other delights.
The feeling was friendly, easy. People chatted, said hello, milled around, talked about the past, introduced people to people they hadn't known. It was like the war was over, and maybe that's all it really was: the PBA trying to say the war is over, have some turkey, try this wine, look at that pastry, oh boy!
I saw many familiar faces from both sides of the Peace Bridge War and many faces I’d never seen before, nearly 200 in all.
Most members of the Public Consensus Review Panel were there, as were many members of the New Millennium Group. There were mayors and other politicians from both sides of the border. Six members of the Buffalo and Niagara Public Bridge Authority were there. Scott Sroka from Senator Schumer’s office was there, as were longtime PBA attorney Arnold Gardner and Episcopal Church Home and Olmsted Parks Conservancy attorney Guy Agostinelli. Architect Clint Brown was there, and so was Community Foundation head Gail Johnstone. Peace Bridge general managers Earl Rowe and Steven Mayer were there. There were reporters galore.
A good number of people were identified to me as Canadians and there were others I assumed were Canadians because of the things they wore in their lapels. Canadians never took part in any of the Public Consensus Review Panel work, save for one evening when Fort Erie Mayor Wayne Redekop came over to tell the Panel how much the old Peace Bridge meant to him and a representative of the Toronto City Council drove down to tell them that the Toronto City Council had voted that the Americans should stop shilly-shallying around and get on with the twin span construction project.
Vincent “Jake” Lamb, who is managing the environmental impact process and who has become the PBA’s point man for public encounters, was home in New Jersey with the flu. No mention was made of bridge-builder Eugene Figg, or any of the other recently-appointed consultants to the process, some of whom I’d previously heard were to be part of the evening's program.
The newest member of the PBA, Colleen DePirro, president of the Amherst Chamber of Commerce, appointed to replace the late Louis Billitier, was not there. I would have liked to have asked her why she thinks Pataki appointed her. She was quoted in the Buffalo News as saying she had no conversations with Pataki about the appointment and had no opinions on the bridge. To live in this area, be active in public life, and have no opinions about the bridge must be like having no opinions on smoking in restaurants or local taxes. How can you not? And if you managed to survive living in this area the past few years without having any opinions about the Peace Bridge, why would you want to serve on the board that administers it?
Canadian Consul-general Mark Romoff wasn't there either, which was surprising. During the two or three years of the Peace Bridge War he rarely turned out for the contentious events, but he was always there for the pleasant announcements.
There were two other notable absences, both of whom had worked assiduously for a steel twin span that would sacrifice Buffalo community interests in favor of Canadian manufacturing and trucking demands: Rep. John LaFalce and Buffalo Niagara Partnership president Andrew Rudnick. Perhaps they had pressing interests elsewhere. Or maybe they didn't want to be in a room where all kinds of people could come up to them and ask why they had tried so hard to prevent what seems to be going on from coming about.
The two bars were set up, but not serving yet, and the several other tables were obviously ready to dispense food, which hadn't arrived yet, at 5:00 p.m., the time the invitations said the evening's events were scheduled to start. Nobody began moving toward the folding chairs in the front of the room until nearly 5:30.
The speeches were all mercifully brief, and three of the listed presenters didn't show up at all. There was nothing in any of the speeches you had to worry about or think about. Mayor Masiello was quite good. He was followed by Fort Erie Mayor Wayne Redekop, who indulged himself in a lot of hockey metaphoring. Redekop was followed by Erie County Executive Joel Giambra, who said good things about involving the community in public works decisions. Giambra also noted that Redekop, for all his hockey metaphoring, hasn't mentioned that the Sabres had clobbered the Mapleleafs a few nights earlier.
PBA chairman John Lopinski introduced Redekop. He said that among Redekop’s achievements was successfully negotiating slot machines for the Fort Erie racetrack. That wasn't a peripheral vita entry: much of the passenger traffic on the Peace Bridge consists of Americans crossing over to gamble. Both the PBA and Fort Erie profit from those slots.
Redekop said he was surprised that Lopinski hadn't mentioned that he'd also been a hockey player. His entire speech percolated with sports metaphors:The hockey metaphors got old almost immediately, but who cared? It was fluff at a border party. So what if the mayor of Fort Erie didn't have anything but platitudes to utter? Politicians issue platitudes the way idling diesel trucks issue carcinogens: it's in the way they're built.I’d like to emphasize that Mayor Masiello and the city of Buffalo, the directors of the Peace Bridge Authority, and the members of council of the town of Fort Erie and me are all members of one team for this particular game.… “Think of us as players in what is perhaps the most important game of our career.… We have a good team.…Our preferred team is only temporary unless our team can agree on a winning strategy. I doubt that any team has ever made it to the finals without having one strategy that all can work together….As we continue through the final minutes of what is an important game to all of us, let's follow some simple rules. Let's play as a team. Let's agree to think like winners. Let us agree to respect the value of other views. Let's agree to turn our difficulties into opportunities. And let's use our heads and move forward together. Finally, as that great Canadian social commentator Red Green says, “Let's keep our sticks on the ice.”
It turned out that Redekop wasn't just platitudinous, he was also duplicitous. As soon as the party was over, he told reporters from WBFO and the Buffalo News that he had no intention of going along with any plan that did not keep the current bridge fully operational and that put a new bridge anywhere but south of the current bridge.
The reason all construction had to be south of the present bridge, he said, is to protect archeological sites underground to the north. I remain unconvinced. Possible archeological artifacts didn't stop construction when they built the new duty-free shop or the Commercial Vehicle Processing Center: they just built right on top of possible sites with (I've been told) a concrete shield between the buildings and the ground to preserve whatever was there. Why couldn't the same procedure be followed a hundred yards to the north?
Redekop’s preconditions were disturbingly close to Buffalo Mayor Masiello’s February 1 proposal that we keep the old bridge and build a new one to the south of it. Is Redekop simply jumping on Masiello’s bandwagon? Are the two in collusion, trying to force the pending environmental impact study into a foregone conclusion?
I don’t know, but I think we’re past the point where a Fort Erie official stomping his feet and holding his breath until his face turns blue is going to hold up this project. Central command in Ottawa just isn’t going to stand for that kind of petulance. They are desperate to have a clear channel for their truck traffic and I can’t believe they’ll let Redekop block it.
Maybe this is Fort Erie trying to squeeze out a few more bonus bucks before it all goes equitable. As long as the PBA was at war with Buffalo, Fort Erie could get rich by making nice and sucking on the big sugartit. But if the PBA and Buffalo are really working together for a solution, then Fort Erie has no special edge and the PBA has no special need to buy it off.
Especially if, as I was told while waiting for a refill of the Long Island Paumanok merlot, the PBA is about to do a management audit, something it has assiduously avoided and which its critics have pointed to as evidence of its fear of sunshine. A financial audit checks on your paper trails, but it doesn’t look at reasons for anything: your books say you paid so many dollars to a certain supplier and your records show a cancelled check and an invoice, and the accountant is happy. In a management audit, you’re asked what did you get for that money and how did you decide on that supplier and did you need it in the first place? If that phase of the PBA’s operations go public, it truly will be a new day down at Peace Bridge Plaza.
The speeches, as I said, were nice-nice. The focal point of the 47-minute session was a video, in which a sexy female voice told us that the Peace Bridge “is the backbone of our region’s unique binational character and lifestyle” and “our gateway to success.” She talked about all the tourists it moves both ways, how it provides thousands of jobs, how it can provide thousands more. While that was going on the music was variously inspirational and dramatic. Then it all changed, and so did her voice:Her voice was all over the place in that bit: passionate, fearful, sexy, assertive, hesitant, soft, loud, fast, slow, and the effects soundtrack was equally busy. It was quite something.But traffic volume is reaching capacity...NOW! [The music got sinister] For every traveler, there are tourist operations waiting to serve. For every truck, a retailer waiting to sell. For industry needing parts JUST IN TIME missed connections, or production halts spoiled shipments leave frustrated customers on both sides tempted to reroute, move or built their business ELSEWHERE. The Peace Bridge is our link to success and progress! [Happy dance music again]
Then she told an old lie: “The Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority is a partner in progress to its customers and neighboring community, a binational organization entirely funded by bridge tolls, duty free revenues, and tenant leases.” Give a rest! The PBA is also funded by huge tax exemptions (which is getting tax money, only it's located in a different page of the account book), disproportionately greater lease payments from the American than the Canadian government (paid by tax dollars), and outright grants from the American government (out of tax dollars).
What came next seemed more appropriate to the state of things a year ago, when the PBA was running its very expensive ad campaign on Buffalo television and radio stations designed to pressure the Public Consensus Review Panel, the City of Buffalo, and Judge Eugene Fahey to let them build the steel bridge immediately:The video was very well made, it had (as they say in the trade) high production values, with MTV-style rapid cutting, a punched-up digital soundtrack, nice archival footage of the 1927 opening of the bridge, and swooping aerial shots. It really moved.The Peace Bridge shares that vision with great hopes and plans, and all eyes are on us, waiting. What rests in our hands is the fate of a legacy, the future of our link to success. We all need to focus on that link. Find a gateway solution NOW and take pride in the progress it will bring to both sides for generations to come.
The only thing about the video I couldn't figure out was its point. The EIS is underway and it's not going to be stopped, so there will be no rush to judgment. Everyone in the room knew that the bridge served tourists and truckers, so there was no need to tell them that. Maybe they had commissioned it before former-PBA chairman Victor Martucci talked the board into giving up the fight and doing the EIS and they figured they might as well get some use out of it. If that’s all it was, fine, nothing to worry about. If the video reflects a split in the PBA – some of them comfortable with the EIS and the open process, others wanting to go back to the old days of three months ago and the policy of pressure and mislead – then we’ve got a problem.
Afterwards, I heard two things, again and again. The first was some variant of, “Did you notice how every one of the speakers used the term ‘Peace Bridge’ and never the term ‘Public Bridge.’ They still can’t face that they're a public agency.” The second was more immediate: “What’s this about? Do you trust them? What’s really going on?”
I had no better answers than anyone else, but after a while I thought about a Greek play and an African folktale.
The play is “The Eumenides,” the third part of Aeschylus’s Oresteia. In it, the Furies, who were mean and nasty and vile are convinced by Athena, goddess of wisdom, to be really helpful instead. They had been living as outcasts, forever in a state of hatred and always engaging in modes of destruction, but Athena makes them an offer they cannot refuse, after which instead of punishing Athens they decide to defend it. Their language in the play changes from anger, defiance and belligerence to words of harmony, peace, mercy, love. The ending of the play is optimistic: the Eumenides continue to be powerful, but now they are powerful as part of the community rather than in opposition to it.
The African folktale is the one about the frog and the scorpion.The great thing about examples from literature and folktales and proverbs is, you can find one for every occasion. Which story is the right one for us right now? What do we have here? Furies entering a new life, now friends of the city? Or the scorpions we know so well? Is it Jake Lamb, running a process that is truly open and intelligent? Is it Wayne Redekop saying from the lectern that this is a time for us all to act as a team but really meaning that the team is playing in a game with the score fixed before the opening whistle?The scorpion wants to get to the other side of the river and asks the frog if he can ride on the frog’s back.
“No way,” the frog says. “I know about you. You’re deadly.”
“Hey, I’m asking you for a favor, to get me across the river. If I were to bite you, we’d both drown. Why would I do that? Trust me. Be a pal.”
That makes sense to the frog, and he’s a good guy, so he holds still while the scorpion clambers up on his back, then he eases into the water and starts swimming to the other side.
About halfway across the river the scorpion does it: zap! That poisonous tail cuts deep, midway down the frog’s spine. Before the tip of that poisonous tail has receded, the frog can no longer control his legs.
“Why did you do that?” the dying frog asked. “Now we’re both going to drown.”
“I’m a scorpion,” the scorpion said, “and that’s what scorpions do.”
“But you said you wouldn’t bite me.”
“I’m a scorpion,” the scorpion said, “you knew that when you met me.”
copyright 2001 Bruce Jackson