(Blue Dog 6 September 2001)

Peace Bridge Chronicles #55

The Peace Bridge Now

by Bruce Jackson

Twice in one week last month Vincent “Jake” Lamb—who is honchoing the environmental impact study Judge Eugene Fahey told the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority it had to carry out if it had any hope of expanding bridge capacity between Buffalo and Fort Erie—put on exhaustive (and exhausting) informational seminars.

The first was Tuesday night, August 21, at the Leisureplex complex in Fort Erie (built with your toll dollars by the PBA); the second was the following night in the Mary Seaton Room at Kleinhans Music Hall. In both, Lamb described in minute detail the process now going on and the organizational structure carrying it out. When he was done, representatives of the several firms hired to provide studies on or do work involving bridge design, environmental impact, public relations, traffic flow during and after construction, archaeological matters and more talked for five or ten minutes each about their firms’ virtues and their projects’ goals. Nearly all of them flashed their own PowerPoint slides.

I went to the Fort Erie session. Well over 200 people attended. After the 2½-hour performance by Lamb and his associates and consultants, members of the audience asked questions and made comments. Some commented on bridge design and expansion politics. Many vented about current bridge problems. A former Buffalo politician tried to sell Lamb a computer polling service for sale by a West Coast company he now represents. A retired Canadian customs officer, who had puffed calmly on an unlighted cigar while he waited to get his turn to speak, complained with great heat about the long delays on the American side because so many inspection booths were so often unstaffed; he ended by saying they should just build a bridge now, a non sequitur I thought. Someone else complained about the traffic problems caused when the PBA shifted the American-side duty-free shop to the toll plaza itself. The Buffalo session the next night, I was told, was pretty much the same: the long PowerPoint presentations by Lamb and the consultants, followed by a wide range of current gripes and continuing observations.

Lamb said that the Leisureplex and Kleinhans sessions were designed to invite questions people in both communities had about the current process. Some of those questions were answered by Lamb and the consultants during those two sessions. Other questions came up in the two weeks after the sessions, after people had time to think about what was said and shown. Here are some of them.

Isn’t this the third time we’ve gone through this process? Didn’t the PBA previously have design competitions and a design charette where people came up with ideas?

The Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority indeed had design presentations (one in collaboration with the Buffalo Niagara Partnership and the Buffalo News), but this is not in any way the third time we're traveling this  ground. It's the first. Last time around, the Public Bridge Authority had made up its mind what it was going to do long before the public got to see anything, and the public sessions were really public relations, not public involvement or participation. A small group of people sought to impose a very narrow vision on the rest of us, ignoring the environmental and social consequences of what they were doing. They ignored Buffalo and bought off Fort Erie. They ignored New York environmental law. This time, because of Judge Eugene Fahey and also because of the Public Consensus Review Panel and the New Millennium Group, the process has been reversed: there will be a huge amount of public involvement and consultation, and the process will be open all the way. No public works project in Erie County has ever had the kind of visibility promised in the current Peace Bridge process.

Jake Lamb works for Parsons, the PBA’s long-time engineering consultant. They came up with the previous twin span design. Isn’t he in a conflict of interest situation now?

It’s not clear whether the twin span idea originated with Parsons or with the PBA itself, and that’s history anyway. People who know Lamb well say he’s an engineer dedicated to whatever project he’s doing now, not to ratifying an idea someone else had once upon a time. In any case, Lamb is isn’t doing design; he’s managing a process involving design and environmental consultants who represent and possess a far greater range of competency and skills than anything the PBA ever employed previously. Perhaps the question to ask isn’t “Is Jake Lamb wedded to the past?” but rather, “Will world-class bridge builders like Christian Menn and Gene Figg let their names go on a design they think is stupid?” When Figg made his presentations at Lamb’s two evening sessions last week he mentioned at least a dozen times the awards his bridges have won. I picture him sleeping with those awards under his pillow. I just can’t envision him signing off on lousy design or keeping his mouth shut while a fix goes down.

The process Lamb described is very complex. Isn’t this going to take years longer than the twin span plan the PBA had?

No. Although things seem to be moving slowly because of all the public involvement, the timeline is almost exactly the same as the timeline for the completed bridge project the PBA projected back when it thought it could simply impose its will on everyone and everything else. They projected about a decade from when construction began to full six-lane capacity with connecting roads and plazas in place; so does the current team. People who say, “Just build it,” are jabbering. Build what? No complete, feasible design was ever prepared. The PBA had an idea of what kind of bridge it wanted to build, but it had no design for a plaza or connecting roads on either side of the river. The first coherent complete plan will be the one to come out of this process.

Why should little Fort Erie have the same voting power in this enterprise as Buffalo?

It would take an international treaty for things to be otherwise. It took specific actions by four governments for the private corporation that built and operated the Peace Bridge to become the public benefit corporation called the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority: Canada, the United States, the Province of Ontario, and the State of New York. Some structural aspects of the PBA have been modified over the years, but that quadripartite empowerment still obtains. The control of the PBA is vested in five New Yorkers (two appointed by the governor, three serving ex officio) and five Canadians (all appointed by the Canadian federal Minister of Transport in Ottawa, though the individuals appointed have always been from Fort Erie or one of the nearby towns). Buffalo has never had a seat on the PBA or a voice in its decisions, though sometimes Buffalo residents were appointed to it. Before Judge Fahey’s decision, that ten-person agency held sham public hearings on decisions that had already been made in private. After Judge Fahey’s decision, it decided to open the process totally and to set up a three-member “partnering group” to administer the decision-making process. That group consists of the PBA, representatives of the city of Buffalo and the town of Fort Erie. All three parties have agreed that no bridge will be built that doesn’t meet with the approval of all three members of the group, so—if that agreement is honored—Buffalo now has far more power in this than it ever did before.

Why, when they talk about money, does it seem that the US is going to be paying far more for the new bridge than Canada? Shouldn’t the PBA pay for everything?

If the money is there, sure it should. If the money isn’t there and if Americans want changes on their side of the river (the Canadians argue) the Americans should pay for it.

The PBA says it has and can earn enough money to build a bridge; money to restore Olmsted’s Front Park and provide new connectors must come from other sources. This may or may not be true. If the process is as open as Lamb and the PBA says, we’ll have a chance to inspect those numbers.

We could say, “Well, we never should have lost the park in the first place,” which is true, but that was then and this is now. Canadians aren’t going to pay for stupid American decisions 30 and 40 years ago. We could say, “But the PBA has bought off Fort Erie, it’s given the town a city hall, a courthouse, a recreation center with two ice skating surfaces, and more,” and the Canadians would say, “Yes. The PBA wanted concessions from us and that’s what we traded for those concessions. How come you didn’t bargain for good things before you gave up one of your most important public spaces? You can’t expect us to pay now because you let us get away with murder all these years.”

I’m not saying they’re right; I’m just telling you what they say.

Keep in mind that for years, Canadians have gotten a better deal out of this crossing than Americans have. Canadian federal agencies pay nothing for office space on bridge plazas that Americans federal agencies pay millions of dollars for, and travelers who pay tolls with Canadian money pay far less than travelers who use American money (the current toll is $2.25 American and $2.75 Canadian, but $2.75 Canadian is worth only $1.78 American). The simple fact is, we share a bridge, but we each have our own interests. The only thing that’s different now is, the wheeling and dealing and the payoffs may for the first time be public, not secret as they have been for so many years. We can’t undo the past, but we can perhaps work to make sure there is more equity in the future.

Why isn’t the PBA looking at other places to put the crossing? Do all those trucks have to come in and out of Buffalo?

No, those trucks don’t have to cross here. A new toll road for trucks is about to slice through Ontario and it can connect at Front Park or a little north at the International Bridge, or at the southern tip of Grand Island or it can feed into one of the northern crossings. Jake Lamb says that the PBA’s EIS process will consider other crossings, and it will consider no change at all at the current location, but the PBA owns the Peace Bridge and it owns facilities connecting to it on both sides of the river. Given any choice at all, it will expand its options right where it is.

They’re not the only game in town. The operators of the Ambassador Bridge between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario, are fairly panting to build a truck bridge connecting the QEW or the new Canadian truck highway with the I190 adjacent to the International Bridge (the iron bridge where trains cross the river a few times a day). They’ve recently poured a huge amount of money into Buffalo hiring key workers and flacks, such as the former head of Pat Moynihan’s Buffalo office and an attorney who specializes in public works environmental law. They said a while back that they were going to do their own environmental impact study, but since then they’ve been working pretty much in the dark, just like the PBA of old. Their spokemen talk as if they have all kinds of experience in this sort of project, but so far far as I’ve been able to find out, the firm has never built anything. Its owner is a very rich reclusive Detroit businessman, a heavy Republican contributor with major connections. They’re a wild card in all of this.

So where are we?

Not where we were, that’s for sure. The PBA may be trying a scam, but if they are, it’s going to be hugely expensive and they’ll probably get busted at it. Democracy is a genie very difficult to stuff back in the bottle and I think that’s what they’ve unleashed in the public process currently going on. It looks inefficient and slow, but only if you think that the previous imperious assertion of raw power and contempt for community needs was a desirable or useful efficiency.

One reason this is all so slow and klutzy, I think, is no one in any of our earlier major public works projects tried to involve so many members of our several communities in a process certain to impact their lives for years to come. We didn’t have a voice in the disastrous suburban relocation of UB, the klutzy design and wretched location of the convention center, the design and location of all those highways that sliced and diced our city. We had no voice in that half-baked Main Street trolley project that took so long to get operational it killed downtown retail business, then literally stopped dead in its tracks before it reached the city limits (in large part because powerful suburban politicians were horrified at the possibility of cheap public transportation providing easy suburban access to people otherwise confined to the inner city).

For years, the PBA fought to keep us out of their private rooms, rooms in which power and money were controlled and parceled. Judge Fahey got us access and the Public Consensus Review Panel and the New Millennium Group told us what to look for once we got inside. Some members of the PBA would like nothing better than to go back to the way things were. Others think their task is to prevent that from ever occurring again. The only thing that will give that new vision a chance of success is continuing pressure from the rest of us on every one of Jake Lamb’s panels, committees and consultants.

copyright 2001 Bruce Jackson
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