(Artvoice  6 April 2000)
 Peace Bridge Chronicles

Humpty Dumpty Time at Peace Bridge Plaza

by Bruce Jackson

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean. Neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master. That’s all.”
The penultimate motion offered at the final meeting of the year-old Public Consensus Review Panel, which took place a D’Youville College the morning of March 30, came from Natalie Harder, spokesperson for Andrew Rudnick and the Buffalo Niagara Partnership. Harder moved that the Panel accept the report of the engineering team hired by the Panel and the PBA to consider what might be done about truck congestion problems at the Peace Bridge. The engineers had recommended a plaza north of the current site, immediate construction of  the companion span the PBA has advocated all along, continued avoidance of an environmental impact study for the bridge project, and a few other things.

No one seconded Harder’s motion.

I asked one Panel member later why Harder’s motion couldn’t even find a second. “They gave us something you can’t vote yes or no on,” he said. “It’ a bunch of weasel words. They were all tired and wanted to get out of this crazy town and figured if they did that we’d let them go. The fact that the PBA came along in October and tried to queer the process is no reason for us to go along with them. Our public mandate was to listen to the public consensus and tell them all we’ve learned in the previous 11 months. And that’s what we did.”

Panel co-chair Randy Marks thanked her for her motion. Then Edward Cosgrove, former Erie County DA and the representative of the Buffalo Common Council on the Panel, moved that the  Panel accept its own report, which recommended construction of a northern plaza, a six-lane concrete bridge, a full environmental impact study, and establishment of an oversight commission to ensure that the work is done correctly. It urged federal elected officials to pursue the wide range of funding opportunities the PBA has thus far ignored and to explore ways of righting the imbalance in Canadian and American investments and benefits. It urged state officials to consider raising the bonding limits that would make all this possible. The Review Panel report also analyzed in lucid detail ways in which the engineers’ report had been too vague or ambiguous to permit rational action and ways in which the engineers’ report was right on the money. That is, it was a report built around the engineers’ report, one that tried to capitalize on its valuable parts and show how its defects might be corrected and, most important, brought the final recommendations in harmony with the engineers’ own data.

Randy Marks called for a voice vote. The yeas seemed loud and clear. Then he called for the nays. No one said anything but Natalie Harder raised her hand from her elbow to her shoulder. Marks and the other co-chair Sister Denise Roche, president of D’Youville, could see her vote, as could steering committee members Robert Kresse and Gail Johnstone and the few other people at the front table. But hardly anyone else in the room could see it. I sent her an email later to be sure that she had voted nay and she wrote back that she had.

Hers was the only vote against the Review Panel’s report.

A few hours after the meeting, Mayor Anthony Masiello and County Executive Joel Giambra issued a joint statement thanking the Panel for its work, endorsing the recommendation for a northern plaza, urging construction of a six-lane signature bridge, telling the PBA to ignore everything else in the Panel's report and apologizing because the Panel hadn’t behaved as the PBA had thought it ought.

The letter was patronizing, insulting, lacking in both statesmanship and or grace. It was an astonishing document, a grumbly thanks to two dozen citizens who had given a huge amount of time in the service of this city and county. They deserved better, every one of them.

I’ve been told that Giambra’s signature is probably a result of his weakness after his recent surgery and the fact that the bridge doesn’t loom large on the screen of his chief of staff Bruce Fischer.

The mayor’s participation in this sorry document seems like another manifestation of what his critics cite as his main fault: a tendency to respond to whoever most recently talked to him forcefully on any particular issue. In this case the forceful talkers were Victor Martucci (chairman of the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority), Andrew Rudnick (president and CEO of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership), and Larry Rubin (attorney at Kavinoky and Cook, who has worked with Arnold Gardner representing the PBA and who was Commissioner of Community Development in the Griffin administration).

All three had met the previous evening in the mayor’s office with Masiello, Giambra, Fischer, Joe Ryan (Rubin’s successor in Community Development), and Rich Stanton of the city law department.

Martucci, Rudnick and Rubin brought with them to that Wednesday meeting the outline of the discussion points the Review Panel had agreed upon Tuesday evening after a straw poll showed a clear majority favored the six-lane bridge. The PBA/Partnership damage control team knew it couldn’t prevent the vote scheduled for the next morning but, as the Giambra-Masiello letter showed, they were still capable of some last-minute mischief.

The following  morning, Friday March 31,  the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority called a press conference at its Front Park headquarters. While twin-span advocate John LaFalce and PBA attorney Arnold Gardner stood against a far wall watching everything and talking to hardly anyone, PBA chairman Vincent Martucci introduced himself, bridge general managers Earl Rowe and Stephen Mayer, and the PBA board (Buffalo’s Barbra Kavanagh wasn’t there, he didn’t say why).

The first thing he said was untrue: “I’m Victor Martucci, chairman of the Peace Bridge Authority.” As we’ve frequently pointed out in these pages, there is no Peace Bridge Authority. There is a “Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority.” That entire team goes to great lengths to avoid reminding us that they are answerable to the public.

Then he repeated what has of late become almost a mantra for him: the Review Panel, he said, had no right to do anything except vote the engineers’ report up or down. The agreement between the PBA and the PCRP last October precluded the PCRP from saying anything about anything. “Pursuant to the agreement, the engineers would then make a recommendation to the PCRP. Now, here is the important point: the PCRP would vote yes or no to ratify the engineer’s final report...nothing more and nothing less. This was the agreement that the PBA and all the other parties entered into in good faith.”

Well, no, it wasn’t. Nothing in the agreement specifies anything like this. The  PBA’s attorneys may wish they had put it there and Martucci may wish it were there, but they didn’t and it isn’t and no amount of repetition is going to make it so.

“As a partner in the process,” he said, “the PBA agreed to vigorously pursue in good faith, the recommendation of the bi-national team of engineers.”

Not so. They agreed to pursue the recommendation of the panel’s steering committee. This is the passage from their agreement signed last October: “As part of this agreement, the Peace Bridge Authority commits to pursuing the selection recommended by the Steering Committee, while Mayor Masiello commits to using all powers granted to the Administrative Branch by the City Charter  to move the necessary easements forward.” That’s pretty simple English; it doesn’t take a lawyer’s mumbo-jumbo for us to get through that sentence.

Then he said something that was true but grounded in a deception, one that has skewed this entire process: “The recommendation of the bi-national team of engineers is the same conclusion reached by three previous studies. In 1996, the Buffalo News conducted a design competition. In 1996, the PBA concluded its review. And in 1998, the Buffalo Niagara Partnership made its recommendation based on an extensive review. All four of these reviews reached the same conclusion...a companion span best meets the criteria of time, money, environmental and economic impacts."

Those groups did recommend as Martucci says they did, but he doesn’t mention a key fact that only came out later in the question and answer period: the Public Bridge Authority had excluded from every one of those studies any possibility of a six-lane bridge. The fix was in from day one. I asked Martucci about that and he asked Bridge general manager for operations Stephen Mayer, who has been on staff for a long time, to answer. Mayer said that in 1994 “the decision was made, which the Authority supports, that the bridge is frankly in very good condition. So it really made no sense to tear down the bridge. For a lot of reasons: there’s archeological, there’s historical, there’s also functional reasons. So then the issue became what was the best way to add capacity.”

I’ve been a teacher and editor for 33 years. The passive voice is a red flag for me. People use it when they don’t want to take the rap for something, they use it when they want to pretend nobody did anything anybody has to get concerned about. So I asked Mayer, “Did you or did you not exclude from serious consideration a six-lane alternative?”

“We excluded it because it did not make any sense to take down the Peace Bridge,” he said. To my knowledge, that is the first time anyone at the PBA said something all of us who have been examining this issue closely have long suspected: no design other than the twin span has ever stood a chance in any of these design conferences, charettes, charades, or whatever else they called them.

One final quotation from Victor Martucci’s prepared statement: “We stand ready to honor our commitment to pursue the bridge and plaza system as finally recommended by the bi-national engineering team.”

The bridge and plaza system recommended by the engineers was what they wanted. What they made a commitment to was what the Review Panel Steering Committee recommended. And that they do not accept, which is to say, they have chosen to renege on the contract they themselves initiated.

In civilized society there is only one place to deal with organizations and people who renege on contracts: Court. Which is where the action now moves.

This Friday Judge Eugene Fahey delivers his long-awaited ruling on the suits filed against the PBA by the Episcopal Church Home, the Olmsted Conservancy and the City of Buffalo. No one ever knows what a judge will do until the judge does it, but smart money is saying that Judge Fahey will order the PBA to do a full environmental impact study on the bridge and the plaza projects.

If the PBA decides to make nice and utilize all the data accumulated by the Public Consensus Review Panel, an EIS can be completed in less than a year. If, as they suggested at last Friday’s press conference, they choose to appeal, then the process could drag on for years. Only this time they’d be hard put to convince their masters that it’s American civic foolishness impeding the march of progress. This time everyone would see very clearly who has muddled this process all along. And it’s not us. And it never was. 

copyright 2000 Bruce Jackson

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