(Artvoice  9 March 2000)

The Right Thing to Do

by Bruce Jackson

Statement prepared for the Public Consensus Review Panel public meeting at WNED
7 March 2000

Thank you for allowing me to speak in response to the consulting engineers’ report. Before I begin, I would like to identify myself and explain why I am speaking to you this evening.

My name is Bruce Jackson. I’ve lived in Buffalo for 33 years. I’m State University of New York Distinguished Professor and Samuel Capen Professor of American Culture at the University at Buffalo. My wife, Diane Christian, is a State University of New York Distinguished Professor. We’ve raised our children here, and we love this community.

Except when I’ve had class or been out of town, I’ve attended all public meetings of this Review Panel and all meetings of the Bridge Task Force organized by Common Council President Jim Pitts. I’ve read everything I could find—engineers’ reports, annual reports, legislation, memos, financial statements, even all the minutes of the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority going back three-quarters of a century. I’ve gone to board meetings of the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority—but since they go into closed executive session whenever they talk about anything important regarding the new bridge, I gave up on that. I’ve talked to scores of people involved in the process or likely to be affected by the results. I’ve written 27 articles on this subject for Artvoice, Buffalo’s weekly newspaper, and one editorial for the Buffalo News.

I did all of that because I think this process and what comes out of it will have profound consequences for this community for decades to come. It really matters which bridge and plaza we get and what happens to the community in the getting of them. It is equally important that the public have a voice in what is done to us. These things should not be decided in rooms from which the public is excluded on the basis of private interests forever kept secret.

By profession I am a teacher, and the largest part of my research has been in criminal justice matters and in analyzing spoken and written documents. I’ve written about the use and abuse of statistics and the difficulties inherent in evaluating data provided by interested parties. I have worked as a consultant for many organizations, among them the Arthur D. Little Company of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the Library of Congress. That training and experience helped prepare me to read and analyze PBA statistics and consultants’ reports. I should also mention that my academic training began in engineering and physics. Numbers are not mystical to me and I’ve never thought that people who argue on the basis of them automatically deserve any more belief or trust than anyone else.

I will direct my remarks to four topics: the issue of compromise, the possibility of decent design, the question of time, and what is to be done now.

1.The Issue of  Compromise
The consulting engineers, several Canadian politicians, and even a few politicians on this side of the border, have urged compromise on us. They say that we’re getting our parkland back, so we should compromise by giving the Canadians the companion bridge they hope to start building this summer. Even though all the most reliable data show that a six-lane concrete bridge and plaza system will cost less to build and maintain and will be completed faster, they say “Compromise. Agree to let them start building a twin span now.”

But there is no compromise there. It is little more than what the PBA told us it was going to do two years ago. Letting us build a decent plaza in exchange for immediate construction of a twin span is like selling us our own car and then charging us rent for the garage in which it is to be parked. The logic is faulty and the results would be wretched.

The bridge and plaza are physically linked and they are linked in terms of their impact on the environment and the community. The full environmental impact study on a non-segmented bridge and plaza project that the PBA has so long opposed must be undertaken before a spade cuts the ground. The consulting engineers didn’t understand the importance of that, but their concern was engineering, not human or long-term environmental issues.

No matter. None of that has anything to do with Canada. Those social and environmental issues are entirely on this side of the border. What we do once the bridge lands here is no more the business of the Canadians than what they do with it there is ours. This is Buffalo territory, not international territory. If they want something beautiful or ugly in their plaza, something that blends with the environment or desecrates it, that’s their business, something they have to work out with the PBA. And we have to work out with the PBA what kind of plaza we will have. That’s what those lawsuits are all about.

But the bridge is truly international. If the PBA or the Canadians  want a bridge we don’t like, we don’t have to let them land it in our country. If we want a bridge the PBA or the Canadians don’t like, they don’t have to let us land it in their country.

The only issue involving both us and Canada in all of this is the bridge itself: what shall it look like and when shall it be built and what inconveniences shall we endure to let that come about? Those are issues for discussion and perhaps compromise–but I’ll remind you that thus far no Canadian official has been willing even to talk about it with us. We’ve received only ultimata and comments about what bullies we Americans are. It’s untrue: the Americans are not the bullies. We’re the ones who keep saying let’s talk, let’s see what we can work out and they’re the ones who keep saying, “The only thing we can work out is what the PBA and Ottawa tell us is the best thing.”

Why have the American board members of the PBA represented only Canadian interests in this? I don’t know. I wish I did. I wish they were taking part in this process. I wish they thought enough of the American public to be willing to talk with us. They don’t, so we can only speculate, and in the silence take whatever steps are necessary to protect our interests.

2. The Possibility of Decent Design
The issue isn’t about the Freschi-Lin Bridge, which the consulting engineers refused to consider at all, versus the Twin Span. Nor is it the choice between the ungainly designs offered by those engineers who were obviously committed to the twin span idea.

It is about whether the PBA is willing to consider any design for a bridge and plaza system other than the one it came up with long before it held any public sessions more than three years ago. It is about whether the PBA is willing to consider honestly what is to be gained by building a six-lane bridge that is cheaper to build and maintain and which will be constructed faster and with less disruption to traffic and the community than anything it has proposed. It is about whether the PBA is willing to suspend its private interests and act as if it really were a public agency.

There are plenty of first-rate highly-experienced engineers and designers out there who can design bridges far more beautiful than anything those consultants showed you last week and who have experience in building them that those consultants lack. When your engineers said “This can’t be done because it’s too difficult,” I heard them saying, “We don’t know how to do this.” There are people who do know how to do this. Gene Figg has built hundreds of such bridges and so have T.Y. Lin and Santiago Calatrava. There’s no reason an honest design competition couldn’t be held right now. There is more than enough time to get it right.

3. The Question of Time
In the past month, the PBA drenched the community with ads saying we had to get started on construction now else dire consequences would result.

That is not true. Their design, if fully implemented, will take longer than any other northern plaza design suggested by anyone. I cannot believe that every bridge designer who has looked into this project is wrong and only the engineers hired by the Public Bridge authority are right.

And there is a further complicating factor their engineers did not discuss: the old bridge is sick, very sick. They can repave it and tune it and tweak its wires, but will not last as long as the new companion bridge. It is almost 75 years old and even with expensive repairs it will soon be at the end of its life. So not very long after all this proposed construction is completed—ten years, fifteen years, twenty-five years—that entire old bridge will have to be replaced in its entirety, and the community will have to endure another four or five years of one inadequate bridge ferrying traffic, four or five years of construction vehicles and commercial trucks pounding and polluting city streets. There’s no need for the community to go through this twice. If we build a new six-lane concrete bridge it won’t have to.

4. What to do?
This has been a long and difficult process. The PBA has spent a fortune in recent weeks trying to buy this, they’ve lobbied many of you, they’ve taken ads trying to get the public to turn against you. The PBA has so much money, so many people at its disposal, so many lawyers, so many press agents, they have so many documents to pour on your tables. I know you’ve all spent hundreds of hours on this task and at times it no doubt has seemed thankless and pointless.

But this is not the time to quit in weariness. When this is over, they go back to running their bridge and we have to live with the results. You, me, our children, our children’s children, all of us.

Restoring our destroyed Front Park is not enough. From the beginning they tried to separate the bridge and plaza and they’re trying to do it now. Divide and conquer. But why shouldn’t we have a viable plaza and a beautiful bridge?

It is not now, and it never has been, an either/or situation for us. They keep saying that again and again, but that doesn’t make it any more true. It isn’t either/or. Of course we can have a plaza that restores to our community the park that was wrenched from us, one that integrates in a useful way with city streets. And of course we can have a bridge that is not an affront to the eye, a bridge that is as beautiful as it is functional. The people who say “You can’t have both” are people who  have other interests at heart.

Few politicians are capable of thinking beyond the next election or two. They try, but only rarely are they capable of saying to the people who poured large chunks of money into their recent campaign or who they hope will pour more money in the next one, “I’d like to help you but I’ve got to think of the public interest ten or twenty years down the road.” No: they compromise. That’s what the lawyers almost universally recommend. Compromise. “You’ve got a position, he’s got a position, hey, let’s find someplace in the middle we can all live with.” There is no truth for such people; there is only something “we can all live with.” That’s maybe the easy way to go, but it’s not always the right way to go.

And in this instance, with this bridge and plaza, it is surely not the right way to go. The American members of the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority have not chosen to represent us in this. We don’t know why and we probably never shall. We don’t know how long we can count on our elected politicians standing tall in this.

It all comes down to you. This entire issue is in your hands and your hearts. Please don’t let them wear you down. Don’t let them convince you that the bridge no longer matters or that Buffalo can be bought off with a promise to design a new plaza. We can and should have both bridge and plaza and you have the power and the responsibility to see that we get them. Do what you know is right.


copyright 2000 Bruce Jackson

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