(Peace Bridge Chronicles #54, Artvoice  28 June 2001)
 

Vincent "Jake" Lamb
Point Man at the Peace Bridge

by Bruce Jackson


(The first of two parts)
 

Canada’s Minister of Transport recently told a reporter that Buffalo’s environmental and aesthetic concerns in the Peace Bridge expansion project mattered not a whit in Canada’s mega-trade plans. The mayor of Fort Erie said that he’d cooperate in the design process currently going on, so long as it resulted in a new bridge located at a site he’d already selected and  didn’t interfere with continued operation of the current bridge, and the mayor of Buffalo proposed a bridge alignment and design plan that was only a slight modification of an idea he had three years ago. This was at a time when both mayors had joined with the PBA in a decision-making group ostensibly open to all suggestions about design, alignment, and location.

But, I think, political posturing, preening, and pontificating matters very little now. The mayors of Buffalo and Fort Erie can suggest, but they cannot control the design process. Canadian government officials can jabber all they like about the inappropriateness of Buffalo interfering with their traffic plans, but the decision about what bridge will cross the Niagara river between Fort Erie, Ontario, and Buffalo, New York, will be made after a public process that takes place right here, not behind closed doors in Ottawa.

The final choice of design will be made by the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority, the PBA. About eight years ago, the PBA came up with the idea of twinning the current steel bridge and in the process occupying a bit more of the pitiful remaining fragments of Frederick Law Olmsted’s Front Park, which their present operations have made all but unusable anyway. The PBA’s professional staff and its board of five Canadians (all appointed by the Minister of Transport) and five Americans (two appointed directly by the governor and three serving ex officio) expected the expansion would occur without impediment, as nearly all the previous Peace Bridge expansion projects. There might be some opposition, but money would be spent, the opposition would fade away, and earth would be turned right on schedule.

Not this time. There was a huge amount of community opposition on the Buffalo side of the river, so much of it that the mayor of Buffalo and the Erie County Executive eventually joined the chorus. Buffalo Mayor Anthony Masiello refused to give the PBA the easements it needed to begin construction. Two community organizations—the Episcopal Church Home and the Olmsted Conservancy—filed suit in state court asking that the PBA be forced to do a full environmental impact study of its proposed bridge and plaza projects, a study the PBA and its staff desperately tried to avoid. With the help of two local foundations, the county and city set up the Public Consensus Review Panel, a broadly-based community and citizens’ group that considered alternative ways of expanding border traffic and the social and environmental consequences of the apparent range of choices. The PBA refused to take part in the panel until it seemed Judge Eugene Fahey was about to rule against its plans, at which point it agreed to underwrite part of a team of engineers to consider design possibilities. The PBA and its engineers delayed the process for two months, then grudgingly took part in it. The PBA itself never sat at the PCRP table. The engineers it hired never did anything but advocate the PBA’s party line.

It was all resolved, finally, not by reason and consensus, but by Judge Fahey, who ruled that the PBA couldn’t turn a shovelful of earth until it undertook a full environmental impact study, one that examined all aspects of both the bridge and plaza construction projects. Judge Fahey told the PBA that they’d have to let the rest of us in on the process.

Judge Fahey’s decision was followed by a major change in attitude within the PBA itself, at least on the American side. While the Canadians held firm to the idea of a steel twin span, PBA chairman Victor Martucci, an astute businessman, realized that strutting and blathering were not going to undo Judge Fahey’s ruling. A new set of attorneys advised him that appealing the ruling was likely to go nowhere. Martucci is obsessively driven to do things well: when he opposed the EIS, he fought it absolutely; when Judge Fahey’s order made the EIS inevitable, Martucci decided they would do the best EIS possible, and he got the rest of the PBA to go along with him. Soon after Martucci set the current EIS project in motion he left the PBA board. His successor, Paul Koessler, seems to be of similar mind. It was time, both insisted, for the PBA to work with, rather than in opposition to, the community.

Enter Vincent “Jake” Lamb.

Jake Lamb is organizing and running the environmental impact study. He’s a former executive vice president and director of Parsons Transportation Group. He’s been project manager on major public works projects around the world. His most recent corporate job before coming to Buffalo was managing corporate conflict resolution in both internal organizational/operational issues and external client/project conflict issues. He’s been around as a consultant to the PBA for the last two or three years. He always seemed to be at the periphery during hearings and public meetings; he listened a lot, but they never let him say much. He’s still listening, and now he’s the man doing nearly all the talking for the PBA.

Lamb says that the current process cannot have validity unless there is real, extensive community involvement. This is the exact opposite of the attitude long held by the PBA board, its two general managers, and its primary front man, Andrew Rudnick, president and CEO of the Buffalo-Niagara Partnership (formerly the Chamber of Commerce). Nowadays, Rudnick says nothing about the Peace Bridge, and the two general managers are all but invisible: they no longer give speeches about what we should do, about why the community should shut up, about why they know what’s best for us. The PBA itself has left just about all the public engagements to Jake Lamb.

Two years ago, you couldn’t get senior staff at the Peace Bridge to take or return telephone calls, let alone come out and talk about what they were up to and listen to community concerns. Lamb has completely reversed that policy. He’ll talk to and listen to the concerns of just about anybody. In the past several months he’s had meetings with and done presentations for the Common Council’s Bi-National Bridge Task Force, Episcopal Church Home, Olmsted Parks Conservancy, Mayor Anthony Masiello, Erie County Executive Joel Giambra, New Millennium Group, Senator Charles Schumer, Congressman John LaFalce, Congressman Jack Quinn, Canadian Consul-General Mark Romoff, some of Senator Hillary Clinton’s staff,* Fort Erie Mayor Wayne Redekop, Mike Fitzpatrick (Ironworkers Union), Welland/Pelham Chamber of Commerce, and many other individuals and groups.

[*Lamb has met with every major political figure in the region except Hillary Clinton. She continues to maintain a policy of dead silence on the Peace Bridge issue. She never talks about it, ignores questions from reporters about it and, when pressed, responds with bland platitudes about the importance of trade. I assume that’s because of her friendship with and political debts to Rep. John LaFalce, a fierce and unrelenting proponent of the Canadian steel twin span design. So far as I know, LaFalce remains the only local political figure of importance who never embraced the PBA’s decision to abandon its earlier plans and undertake the full environmental impact study. (Andrew Rudnick, another steel bridge advocate, has also maintained silence since the PBA changed direction, but I count him as a business activist rather than a political figure).  Clinton’s help will be important when the PBA makes its actual application for federal transportation funds and we can only hope that she gets free enough of her impeachment-days debts to John LaFalce to help us when that time comes.]
It is possible that when the environmental impact study is finished the Public Bridge Authority will examine the suggested alternatives and conclude that the only viable plan would be the one they came up with nearly a decade ago, a steel twin span alongside the aging twin span now in place. From all I hear, the Canadian members of the board would be perfectly happy with such a decision.
 

The only thing that can stop the old foolishness from surfacing once again is a set of recommendations from the environmental impact study so well-founded and well-reasoned that the forces of avarice and expedience have to give way to common sense and human decency. They almost got away with it a year ago, but Mayor Masiello’s refusal to give the easement they needed to begin construction and Judge Fahey’s insistence that they obey U.S. environmental law stopped them.

They haven’t gone away. The forces of avarice and expedience never go away. The most important person between us and them right now is Jake Lamb.

Senator Charles Schumer, an ardent and persistent advocate of a rational bridge project, recently became concerned about what seemed to him lack of movement in the EIS process, and by an article by Patrick Lakamp in the Buffalo News quoting Lamb as saying the PBA needed $150 million in Federal funds to carry out the project. Why, Schumer asked, had nothing happened on the EIS in the year since Judge Fahey’s order became effective, and how could Lamb say they would need $150 million in outside money when the project scoping—the stage where they detail what problem they’re trying to solve and what the possible solutions are and what those solutions might cost—hadn’t even begun, let alone the EIS itself? Did Lamb (hence the PBA) have a design in mind already? Was the process just underway smoke and mirrors, a sham?

The Peace Bridge Action Group of the New Millennium Group, a community organization that was critical in stopping the ugly bridge plan, sprung to Lamb’s defense. As far as they’re concerned, Lamb has been doing a huge amount of preparatory groundwork, getting the parts in place so when the scoping and EIS start they’ll have enough community involvement and professional competency so the results will have validity.

I’ve been writing about Peace Bridge affairs in these pages since August 1998, and I’ve several times told you about people or processes I thought you should mistrust or at least watch very carefully. The NMG trusts Jake Lamb, and I think they are right to do so. Jake Lamb is one of those people who is, I believe, just what he seems: a highly skilled professional honestly dedicated to doing a good job.

What follows is a transcription of a telephone conversation we had on June 22, and an email he sent June 10 in response to some questions I’d sent him about the issues raised by Senator Schumer. Next week, we’ll publish extensive selections from our May 31 and June 1 conversation in which Lamb describes the entire scoping and EIS process, and discusses the reasons for his key choices.
 

I. Money Matters (an email letter)

Frankly I, did not intend to raise the issue of money and financial aid at this point in the process. But I was reminded in meetings with congressional representatives that now is the time to start application processes to obtain ISTEA 2003 [Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act] funding, and we don't know when the next opportunity will come. So I was (am) in a situation where I am asking for funding in advance of definition (thru the Environmental Process) of a specific plan for the Peace bridge expansion. But I do know, based on the PCRP consultants’ report, that all of the alternatives identified in that review that would produce a U.S. plaza plan that restores (partially or in whole) Front park and Fort Porter, would cost more than the PBA's funding capacity.…

I believe the work of the PCRP is of value and I am using their work products to try to get some early (consistent with the ISTEA budgeting cycle) political support for money to be in position to achieve financial feasibility for project alternatives that may be beyond the financial capability of the PBA. As I have said to Patrick Lakamp and to you, an independent evaluation will be made of the PBA's financial capability (this evaluation will consider toll increases) and the definition of the expansion plan will be achieved thru the environmental process. There is no pre-determined plan which is the basis for my initiative to get ISTEA 2003 money.

You don't need a final plan to support a request for funding. You should have some substantive supporting information and I think we have that in the work produced by the PCRP. And I remind you that the PBA received the approximately $22 million U.S. federal funding commitment for the connecting roads (plaza to/from I190) at some stage well before the connecting roads plan was developed in the U.S. plaza EIS.

At some point in the environmental process financial feasibility will become a decisive factor. I am trying to reduce the risk that financial feasibility may ultimately become the deciding factor in selection of the preferred alternative. I would prefer eliminating the financial factor in the selection process. It is toward that end that I am raising this issue now. I want to find out now what the potential is for obtaining federal aid and when we need to formally apply for it, and the potential commitment of local, regional, and state leaders to support aid for the project.

Usually there is a cycle of several years between ISTEA appropriations. I did not want to chance waiting and then find that after we develop thru pubic involvement a favored plan which, based on PCRP's work, would probably exceed PBA's capacity, that there is no available funding source and/or that there is a long wait for new funding. Then the question will be "Jake, why didn't you ask earlier?

Now the political leaders may respond with, “See us later and we will get the necessary funding.” Okay, if that is the best I can do now I'll accept that—provided their commitment is made public.

If the PCRP estimates are accurate it seems that the delta cost [the difference between what the PBA can afford and what the project seems likely to cost] is also driven to some extent by the objective to restore Front park and Fort Porter. If that is the case there is some logic in U.S. financial sources assuming a greater role in helping to achieve this quality-of-life-enhancing objective. So in view of the urgency to tap into ISTEA2003 I approached the American side first.

I believe funding discussion at this stage may have the additional benefit of building political support on both sides of the border for the "Shared Border Management Concept" (moving U.S. plaza operations to Canada to the extent possible) because there are preliminary indications (to be developed and confirmed thru the Process) that this Concept (which would be common to all U.S. Plaza alternatives) would reduce the cost of the project, and therefore the amount of additional money needed, and could shift some project plaza work to the Canadian side, thereby supporting/bolstering the logic for Canadian financial aid .

II. Where Things Are (A phone conversation)

The Buffalo News quoted you as saying you want $150 million in federal funds for the bridge project. But the project scoping hasn’t been done and the environmental impact study hasn’t started, so how did that number come about?

Actually, the number was 130 to 150. The way the number came about was using the alternatives that were identified in the Public Consensus Review Panel report and the estimates that their team of consultants came up with. If you add the bridge and the plaza together for the combinations that they developed and compared those estimates of costs – they were 1999 dollars – to the estimated capability of the Peace Bridge Authority to fund new capital construction, which is estimated at about $180 million, if I take the difference between that $180 million and the estimates, and there’s some rounding, the range is $130 to $150. It depends on which alternative you might end up with.

I think a couple of things are clear from the Public Consensus Review Panel report. One, that if there was a consensus, that there was a consensus to restore Front Park and putting in a plaza at a different location, into a residential area. I think that was clear. The other thing that was clear was that these estimates confirm, when you compare them to the Peace Bridge Authority’s capability, that some additional funding would be necessary to achieve the objective of building one of the those alternatives.

It’s just not a matter of being close to the Authority’s capability. The difference was so substantial that I felt it necessary to point this out at this stage of the game, this stage of the process, so that people would understand going in that the reality of the situation is, if we just looked at a project the Peace Bridge Authority could afford with their own money, without any outside help, it would mean there would be some restriction on how far we could go with alternatives. We would look at these other alternatives as well and estimate the values of them. But given fact that the preliminary work is underway now for getting money authorized and allocated to various projects under ISTEA-2003, this seemed to be the right time–and it is the right time—to raise the issue so that financial planning can go along concurrently with the engineering evaluations and the environmental evaluations so that we’re not restricted from picking an alternative that achieves those objectives.

That, basically is why I raised the issue at this point. I know it’s causing some concern in different places, but I felt better to do it now than to do it later and have somebody say, “Well, why didn’t you tell us before.” It’s quite clear from the information, and this is valuable information that the Public Consensus Review Panel produced, that there’s definitely going to need to be some kind of additional financial help and assistance to get the kind of plan that I think the community is indicating that it wants.

This is talking about the whole system, right?

Yes. This is not bridge alone. As a matter of fact, people say, “The bridge doesn’t cost that much.” No, it isn’t in the bridge. It’s in the plaza and the right of way and the relocations that are required to move the plaza. It’s the construction and the acquisition of right of way, and relocation of people that would accompany going into those residential areas.

All these numbers are subject to confirmation. Further detailing will be done with them, and maybe another set of numbers is going to come up. But I think the trend there is very clear. It’s quite obvious that some additional funding would be required and I wanted start that process.

What happened in your meeting yesterday with Senator Schumer?

Paul Koessler went with me and we met with Schumer’s staff and with Schumer himself. He was very gracious to meet with us, we were pleased to have the meeting. We agreed that we want to work together toward constructing the best bridge and plaza design for the U.S. and Canadian communities, and that public input and participation is a key component if this project is going to succeed. So we’re on the same page with respect to the process.

We also discussed the issue of shared border management, which as you know would involve transferring some or most of the U.S. Customs operations to the Canadian side of the Peace Bridge. This, of course, would have a very positive impact on the U.S. side in that it would minimize the amount of land the Authority would have to acquire. The increased efficiencies brought about by such an arrangement could decrease the total cost of the project substantially. We agreed with the senator that we would work with him and his staff to explore that shared border management customs operation further.

He also reiterated his concern that the formal environmental impact statement had not yet begun. It actually formally begins when we issue a notice of intent and we haven’t done that yet. He’s anxious for it to move and we agreed: we’re anxious for it to move, too and we’re working toward that end.

It was a positive meeting and it’s one that indicates support by the senator which is going to be extremely important throughout the process.

Have you ever had any conversations with Hillary Clinton and her staff about this?

We’ve been around to all of them. I have not met personally with Hillary Clinton. We have met with staff. We did not bring up this issue of 130-150 because we were not focusing on that at the time. We did talk to them about shared border management and we did talk to them about the prospect of eventually needing some financial assistance, but it was in addition to everything else that we were talking about. We really didn’t focus on it.

I didn’t focus on it with Patrick Lakamp either. I went through the entire process and he kind of focused in on that part.

Lakamp wrote in his June 8 piece in the Buffalo News that, “The authority does not intend to ask Canada for monetary aid, Lamb said, in part because the pressure for an enhanced design came from Americans.”

That’s not a conclusion that’s appropriate at this particular point in time. We certainly haven’t ruled out asking Canada for money. My view on it is, I want to see some movement on the American side toward two things in the political world. Support the idea of providing some sort of financial assistance to the project, that’s number one. Number two, the idea of moving together with Canada in some cooperative effort to help solve our local problem here. I’m not talking about the full border now. With respect to moving some of these operations to Canada. This isn’t something the project can do without outside support from both the public and the political worlds.

If we get that kind of support, we would definitely discuss the financial situation with the Canadian authorities and I think under some situations we would discuss the possibility of getting some Canadian assistance to make the project a reality to achieve these gateway objectives that we all know have been put on the table by various components, especially on the American side, but on the Canadian side as well.

So that’s not ruled out at all. There’s some logic for it, for the Canadians to participate along with the Americans, but basically I’d like to see some movement on the American side on both of those scores.

Do you have any idea when the letter of intent will occur?

We’ve been working toward that. We’ve been doing a lot of preparatory work and just recently I’ve finalized my thinking with respect to these collaborative workshops on the Binational Civic Advisory Committee. I have a good feeling now for how they’re going to participate, for how we’re going to get the public involved in these workshops to help bring us to consensus on conclusions and recommendations with respect to selecting as Senator Schumer puts it, the best bridge and plaza plan.

With that in place we are planning a meeting with agencies the early part of July. Immediately following that will be a notice of intent. I would expect the notice of intent would be published by the middle of July or the latter part of July. Of this year, of course.

We would follow that with public information meetings on both sides of the border to be followed by the formal public scoping meetings, which are required by the procedure. The public information meetings that I’m talking about are not required by the procedure but we want to do that to help inform the public of how they’re going to participate in the project and what the scoping process is about and how to specifically participate in the scoping process.

Following the public scoping meetings, we intend to have workshops to help the public respond to the issues that are raised during the scoping. In other words, we want to help facilitate taking their ideas and thoughts and suggestions onto a piece of paper with respect maybe to alternatives or to discuss even the process that we’re using so that it’s clear to them what we’re doing, so they’re in a much better position to have informed input to the scoping process. We’ll take that information, then, and revise our draft scoping document. That would basically mean putting everything up on the table, not taking anything off the table.

The whole idea of the scoping is to get all the issues identified and defined, and all the alternatives that the public is interested in considering identified and defined. We don’t do any elimination of anything during that process. We start that after the final scoping document is prepared, which comes at the end of that process.

How long does that take?

Let’s follow some scenarios here. If we—and I’m pretty confident that we will—have the notice of intent out in July and we have our formal scoping meeting in August, I would think that the scoping process would be finished not later than the end of September. Then the process of evaluating alternatives would start. That’s where we get into more concentrated public collaborative workshops to take that long list of alternatives that’s developed during the scoping process, start pruning it down, culling it down. The public’s going to be involved in that culling process.

Hopefully, we get down to several reasonable alternatives. The criteria for determining “reasonable alternatives” will be identified in the original scoping document that we will circulate during the public information meetings prior to the public scoping meeting, so you’ll know how we’re going to evaluate this stuff, what the criteria is, and you—by “you” I mean the public—would apply that criteria when you’re comparing one alternative to another.

So it’s going to be all up front. We start applying that later, after we’ve sorted through it and you’ve had your look at it and you’ve had your questions and clarifications about it, suggested changes about it. We use that criteria then to start the culling process and ultimately the same criteria would be used to select the preferred alternative.

One of the criteria will be having a doable project, an affordable project. It’s in anticipation of where we’re going to go here that I talk about money now. I don’t have a plan in mind that we’re going to end up with. But I do know that if we’re going to go in the direction which a lot of people want us to go in and which is pretty well encompassed with the Public Consensus Review Panel report, that it’s more than the Authority can afford, at least based on what I understand about what the Authority can afford.

Now, during the process, we’re going to have an independent evaluation made to determine if that 180 [million dollars that the PBA can afford] is an appropriate number.  It could be more, it could be less. Our traffic engineers are already working on traffic projections. We’re going to use those traffic projections and use different scenarios for the toll rates to determine the number. We’ll go through that process and have financial people come in to look at the other authorities’ net operating revenues and costs and what their debt service is on their outstanding bonds, and through that process we’ll get a confirmation of 180 or some other number. That’s going to be done by our process, by our group, by our team. We’re going to have to bring in a couple of specialists to help us there, but that’s what we’re going to do.

So when I put out 130, 150, that’s not a number that’s in concrete. But there’s some basis for it, and the basis is the Public Consensus Review Panel report.

The other thing is, as we discussed with Senator Schumer, if we can move operations to Canada. Fortunately, because of the Authority’s investment in the Canadian plaza over the past ten years the amount of work that would have to be done over there is not as extensive as what would otherwise be required, or appears not to be as extensive. We haven’t worked out all the details. That would be done as part of this process. It definitely looks like it would be less expensive.  Certainly we’re not going to have to go out and buy a lot of right-of-way, and that would reduce the size of the requirements on the U.S. side and that translates into saving money. And that makes the project a little more feasible, from the financial standpoint.

I’m not saying “Hey, I gotta have 130, 150 million or else.” What I am saying is that it’s clear—based on the objectives that are known to us, we’re not starting here in the dark—that some financial assistance is going to be required. And to the extent that it is required to come up with the best plan, we just putting everybody on notice that it’s a reality of this project.

Part of this financial thing could be a staging of construction. In other words, if we came up with a total project, bridge and plaza, you got the possibility of staging the construction to try and stretch out the money requirements so that it’s not all done at one time. I don’t know whether that’s doable or not. It depends on what the form of the final plan is, the preferred plan. But that certainly would be looked at also.

Anything that would help make the project work, meaning the preferred project, the project that’s going to come out of the process, we’re going to try and achieve. That includes making efforts to get more money from whatever source we can get it from. And it includes efforts to see if there’s any possibility of the shared border management plan.

There’s a lot of mistrust toward PBA staff but I don’t know anybody who doesn’t trust you. It’s amazing.

They should trust me. Because I’m being straight. I’ve got one agenda. It’s the project agenda. I’m not carrying an agenda for the Peace Bridge, I’m not carrying an agenda for the institution. I want to see this project be, as Senator Schumer says, the best bridge and the best plaza. That’s where I’m going with this thing. I’m going to do everything I can to achieve that objective.
 
 
 
 
 

copyright 2001 Bruce Jackson
 

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