(Intersight 6, 2001)
Beauty and the Bridge
by Bruce Jackson
There had been conversations about and attempts at building a bridge between Fort Erie, Ontario, and Buffalo going back at least to 1851. For a variety of political, economic and technical reasons nothing happened until 1919 when a group of twenty-five Americans and Canadians led by Buffalo steel magnate Frank Baird, set up the Buffalo and Fort Erie Bridge Corporation. They put up $50,000 of their own money to get the corporation going, and then set out to raise $4,500,000 in bonds for the actual construction. The bonds were mostly sold locally, and the offering was oversubscribed before the first offering day was out. People on both sides of the river really wanted the bridge, they liked the idea of the bridge, they were willing to invest their own money to have the bridge.
Some people wanted to name the bridge after Baird, but he’d have none of that. It would be called the Peace Bridge, in commemoration of the century of peace between Canada and the United States following the end of the War of 1812. Had it not been for the assassination of the Grand Duke Ferdinand in Sarajevo and the Great War, they probably would have gotten the job done closer to the real anniversary.
The first automobile to make an official crossing was driven by Edward J. Lupfer, the bridge company’s chief engineer, on March 13, 1927. The Bridge opened to the public on June 1 of that year. Some people say that when the Peace Bridge opened for business the happiest Americans were those who liked summering along Lake Erie’s sparsely populated Canadian shoreline but hated waiting to board the ferry that was the only way for them to cross the swift Niagara river between Buffalo and Fort Erie. Others insist that the happiest were the Americans who wanted the pleasures of booze without the sordidness of bootleggers and revenue agents.
Frank Baird and other men of vision surely understood the long-term commercial implications of easy traffic across this part of the border, but for most people the opening of the Peace Bridge was, well, just really nice. The original toll schedule had rates for trucks—but it also had rates for pedestrians, bicycles, horses, horse-drawn carriages, automobiles, and hearses.
Edward Lupfer’s design was simple and elegant: a series of six steel arches would support the two-lane cobblestone roadway that would cross from Fort Erie, Ontario, to Fort Porter on the northern end of Front Park, the crown jewel of the park and parkway system Frederick Law Olmsted had designed for Buffalo. The bridge, Lupfer thought, would complement Olmsted’s landscape.
Would that it had been so. Lupfer’s design was spoiled from the beginning. Over the years, the various roads and processing buildings linked to the bridge made Olmsted’s fine park all but unusable. The Peace Bridge turned the crown jewel into an eyesore.
The U.S. Coast Guard insisted that the segment of the bridge crossing the Black Rock Canal and making the landfall in the US would have to be one hundred feet high from corner to corner—not just in the middle or in most of the middle, but all the way across. Tall ships had once used that canal and tall ships might come again, so the bridge had to be ready for them. No steel arch going to the Fort Porter high ground could possibly accomplish that. So Edward Lupfer’s elegant design was mutilated before the first spade of earth was turned: instead of a sixth arch making the American landfall there was the looming dark box of a Parker truss supporting the roadway from above, rupturing the smooth line of the border road.
That’s why the Peace Bridge has always been nicer to look at from the Canadian than the American side. The Canadians had the arches and open sky above the bridge; Americans had the big ugly truss.
But a lovely design spoiled by bureaucratic intransigence wasn’t the only thing to interfere with Frank Baird’s dream. Within a few years of the bridge’s grand opening (attended by the Prince of Wales, the vice president of the United States, and thousands of swells and ordinary folks) there was also a matter of grim economics. The Great Depression reduced traffic across the bridge by pleasure seekers and by people engaged in ordinary commerce, and the repeal of Prohibition ended traffic across the bridge by the merely thirsty.
In 1933, the Bridge Company sought and got governmental salvation. Over the next year, three separate pieces of legislation in Ottawa, Albany, and Washington, D.C., created the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority, a public benefit corporation. The corporation was supposed to operate the bridge until it made enough money to pay off its bonds and turn over the bridge to the ordinary transportation agencies in Ontario and New York. The corporation made money, a huge amount of it, but it never did pay off its bonds, and it is now not one bit closer to turning over its worldly goods to the governments that created it than it was on the day it came into being.
New York public benefit corporations exist in a land of deliberate legal ambiguity: they’re set up by governments but they behave like private corporations. They can partake of benefits of government status–their property and bonds are tax exempt, for example–but they control their own resources. They can make contracts that state legislators cannot subsequently undo or even meddle with*; they needn’t engage in competitive bidding (unless more than half the board members were appointed by the governor and/or are on the board because of New York public offices they otherwise hold); except for annual financial reports their records are not open to public inspection (as are the records of ordinary government agencies); they can refinance their outstanding debt by issuing replacement bonds; and, in many instances, they don’t have to hold public hearings before beginning new construction.
Public authorities are designed to build something–a bridge, tunnel, roadway. They collect tolls from the public for the use of what they’ve built. When their construction bonds are paid off, they are supposed to go out of business and whatever they built is to be turned over to the people. In practice, dissolution rarely happens. Public authorities are like any other animal: their first instinct is self-preservation. Once established, most of them find ways to keep going and going and going.
The two most common devices for authority self-perpetuation are refinancing old bonds and engaging in new construction that justifies issuing new bonds. “If an authority ceased to build,” wrote Robert A. Caro in his magisterial biography of Robert Moses, “it would die; if all it did was collect tolls, the tolls would pay off its bonds and when the bonds were paid off it would have no choice but to go out of existence. Only by continually embarking on new projects—which would require new bond issues—could an authority remain viable.”**
For the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority, there has always been what seemed a good reason for refinancing and always a demonstrable need for expansion. The major banks in the region have been their allies in these endeavors because the commissions on the new and reissued bonds are huge and, from the point of view of the general public, invisible.
Raiding the Cash
The Authority at first had nine members, six from the US and three from Canada. It acquired all the assets and debts of the financially-strapped Buffalo and Fort Erie Bridge Corporation. With the debts restructured and almost no taxes to pay, the Authority was immediately on firm financial footing, which it has never lost.
In 1957, New York State created the Niagara Frontier Port Authority (subsequently the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority) and tried to tuck the by-then-profitable Peace Bridge into it. The board members of the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority balked. They asked New York Attorney General Jacob Javits for a ruling: could the New York Legislature take over an organization created by the government of New York, the government of Canada and the U.S. Congress? Javits said no, the state’s reach wasn’t that long.
So the ownership papers were redrawn once again. There were four key changes:The five Canadians are by law residents of the Province of Ontario appointed by the federal Minister of Transport in Ottawa. Two of the Americans are appointed by the Governor of New York, and three serve ex officio: the board chair of the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, the New York attorney general, and the director of the New York Department of Transportation. The three New York ex officio members usually appoint senior staff members to represent them, but sometimes they appoint instead people who made major campaign contributions to the party controlling the New York governor’s office. That means at least seven and as many as ten of the board members are political appointees. In theory, the PBA is a nonpolitical board; in fact, it is anything but.—The bridge would be directly tied to no other agency, which meant it would remain fully independent.
—The two countries would divide excess revenues equally.
—The sunset, the date everything would be turned over to the two governments, was extended from whenever the outstanding bonds were paid off to 1992.
—Total board membership would increase to ten, with five members from each country.
The 1957 restructuring would turn out to be of key importance at the century’s end, when the PBA’s expansion plans focused on a $200 million bridge and plaza construction project. Because the ten-person board had five Canadian members, the PBA was not longer subject to New York’s laws on open and competitive bidding on construction contracts. Henceforth most of its most critical business would be handled in closed rooms.
In 1970, the New York Department of Transportation decided that bridge capacity would have to be expanded before very long, which meant the Public Bridge Authority would get to issue new construction bonds. The several governments extended the life of the Authority to 2020 and raised the Authority’s debt limit. The Canadian government and the State of New York, agreed that, instead of splitting whatever cash was left over after payments were made, they would each get a flat $200,000 each year, and the Public Bridge Authority would keep the excess for development.
The Peace Bridge is a very profitable operation, so that excess is considerable. The PBA made a good deal of money from increases in ordinary passenger and truck traffic over the years, but after the North American Free Trade Alliance (NAFTA) went into effect on January 1, 1994 and the volume of truck traffic exploded, revenues from trucks quickly surpassed revenues from passenger vehicles. In 1998, the Peace Bridge reported income of $25,040,401 ($5,996,828 passenger tolls, $13,952,982 commercial tolls, $4,866,212 rentals, and $224,379 “other”) and what their accountant terms an “excess of revenues over expenses” (what you and I would refer to as “profit”) of $9,180,378. After paying all operating expenses and debt service, the Bridge made a 36.6% profit. If the Peace Bridge were a private corporation, this would be a joyous rate of return.
Equally important is the fund balance, which is what they’ve accumulated. When you want to know how rich someone is, you don’t look at what came in or what went out, you look at the fund balance. In 1998 the Authority had a fund balance of $64,668,291, up from $55,487,913 the year before. Absent some new and very expensive construction, the PBA was in danger of profiting itself out of existence. No way were they going to permit that to happen.
Except for the time the Americans tried to scoop up the cash reserves and the board representation was changed, hardly anyone ever paid attention to the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority. Its job was simple: maintain the bridge and keep tolls at a level that kept the corporation in the black. They met once a month or so and did mostly dull business, like deciding who would get paving, painting and derusting contracts; setting the terms of retirement and medical plans; occasionally voting special death benefits for the families of longtime employees; deciding which banks would get the commissions for handling their bonds. They went along for years with a single engineering consultant handling all their major planning and maintenance, they doled out sweetheart maintenance and purchase contracts on both sides of the border, they spread the bond commission money around. They did small or medium-sized construction projects, like building a duty-free shop on the American bridge plaza itself (which caused messy traffic problems, but it was a moneymaker) and they worked hard to keep Fort Erie unambiguously happy: the Bridge Authority built a huge duty free store in Fort Erie, as well as a commercial truck processing plaza, a new courthouse, a new city hall, a new two-surface skating rink and a new community center. A lifetime resident of Fort Erie said: “This is a small town. You throw $100,000 around and it’s a big deal. These people are throwing millions. The courthouse. The town hall. The double-surface rink. That’s $20 million in a town the total real estate assessment of which is maybe $58 million. If you were mayor what would you do when they told you they wanted something?” And another said, “The Bridge contributes to everything over here. Whatever Fort Erie wants, they get. And whatever the PBA wants, Fort Erie gives.”
Had the PBA been an ordinary government agency rather than an authority there would have been public hearings about the justification for and placement of all that construction, but it was an authority so the PBA’s ten directors just met and did what they thought best. The NAFTA-driven tolls were pouring in, Fort Erie would agree to any plan the PBA had, Buffalo hardly paid attention to the PBA at all. Things were going very well indeed.
Then they decided to expand the bridge itself, and everything went haywire.
The Center Does Not Hold
Because of the increase in truck traffic and the likelihood that the truck traffic would continue increasing for the next decade, the PBA decided to expand bridge capacity. This meant adding more lanes to the crossing and improving customs and immigration facilities at the American plaza. Critics would later argue that all of the current congestion problems could be handled by computerizing the customs and immigration operations and moving them to an international zone on the Canadian side, but the PBA insists that would be ameliorative, but sooner or later more lanes would be needed.
They decided to build a second steel bridge, a copy in all details but one of the bridge Frank Baird and Edward J. Lupfer had built three-quarters of a century earlier. Since the U.S. Coast Guard still held firm to its 100-foot-clearance requirement, the PBA and its engineering consultant, Parsons/DeLeuw, designed a truss a little less bulky than the original. They said that after the second bridge was up they’d shut down the old bridge for a while and they’d redeck it and they might redo its truss to match the one on the new bridge. The new bridge with its new links to the New York Thruway would of course require an expanded processing plaza, which meant it would consume even more of the surviving remnants of Olmsted’s Front Park.
The PBA insisted that the plaza and bridge expansion projects were independent of one another, and said they were still considering bridge design options. They even had some public hearings about design. Opponents were quick to point out that once you build a plaza with all its connecting ramps and roads, and you’re committed to keeping things on the Canadian side as they are, you’ve pretty much limited what kinds of bridges might be built linking the two plazas.
Later evidence revealed, and one of the two bridge administrators admitted, that they’d decided to ignore all expansion alternatives other than a companion span and, failing at that, widening the present bridge, years before they went public with any of this.
This is documented in the Peace Bridge Capacity Expansion: Draft Environmental Assessment, a report prepared by the Public Bridge Authority in September 1996. Chapter three, “Bridge Crossing Alternatives,” reports on a structural design conference held in September 1994. “The Conference was attended by the Bridge Authority and representatives of the four consulting engineering companies.” Nobody from the general public, no designers with other ideas, nobody but the PBA, its staff, and the engineering firms it was paying to provide advice.
Here is the key paragraph, the one that articulates the policy decision that caused all the trouble:There was no consideration at all of entirely replacing the old bridge. The consulting engineers were never asked or allowed to deal with that possibility.***The Structural Conference concluded that capacity expansion of the existing bridge would be required within the very near future. Therefore, the group of consulting engineers collectively prepared and identified preliminary alternatives for expanding the bridge’s capacity. The alternatives included widening the existing structure, or alternatively constructing a parallel structure either to the north or south of the existing bridge, that would be visually compatible with the existing bridge.
Jack Cullen, a Buffalo businessman, and Clinton Brown, a Buffalo architect, thought something much better could be done with a new crossing. Rather than duplicate the anachronistic steel structure with a design that had been spoiled from the beginning by the Coast Guard’s fantasy of the return of tall ships, they said the PBA should put up a totally new six-lane bridge that would celebrate the significance of the border crossing, a bridge that incorporated 21st rather than 19th century bridge-building technology, a bridge people might like to look at. They got hundreds of people to join a group they called “SuperSpan Upper Niagara PLC.” SuperSpan never had a bridge design, just the idea that a well-designed bridge made far more sense than a badly-designed bridge. The most important thing about the SuperSpan group was, they got people to think about possibilities. And about the possibility of one more architectural disaster if something weren’t done to get the PBA to alter course.
Why Buffalo Balked
Most people in the Buffalo area who are involved in or concerned about public affairs can recite a litany of public works and private construction projects that promised much but wound up subtracting substantially from the quality of city life:Buffalo is probably not special in this kind of public works stupidity. Other cities at other phases in their history made the same kinds of blunders. But Buffalo did it a lot and did it over a brief period of time. The city isn’t very big, and the blunders were coterminous with a decline in the city’s economy because its major heavy industry—steel—moved to Asia. Because of that accumulation of wounds, the city now is like someone riding a motorcycle on a busy highway: there is no such thing as a minor error. Do anything wrong and it will hurt big.—the Niagara section of the Thruway cuts the city off from the waterfront and routes high-pollution diesel trucks through populated areas;
—the new football stadium for the Buffalo Bills was located in a suburb 15 miles out of town;
— the Amherst campus of the University at Buffalo ripped a huge middle class population group and its associated services out of the city and deprived the university of the rich resources a city environment can provide;
— an expressway was built to make it easier for people to get into the city (route 33) with no thought given to the fact that it also made it easier for people to get out of the city, to work in the city but live elsewhere;
—a dark, squat, and inadequate convention center breaks one of city-designer Joseph Ellicott’s functional radii;
— a huge office building squats across the foot of Main Street, literally blocking out the light;
— a light rail system designed to increase access to downtown stopped halfway to its destination because some people felt it would make access to the wealthy suburbs too easy to the nonwhite poor, and the construction process dragged on for years, destroying downtown retail business.
What happened this time was a citizen’s revolt. With only a few exceptions, the politicians were caught by surprise and had to play catch-up. Two politicians were ahead of the curve: Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, long the most sensitive of US senators to the importance of public works for the human spirit; and Buffalo Common Council President James Pitts. Anthony Masiello, the city’s mayor, waffled, but finally came down on the side of those who wanted a rational bridge. Al D’Amato, New York’s other US senator during the early part of this battle, pretty much ignored it, but D’Amato’s successor, Charles Schumer, joined Moynihan in aggressively working for something other than the twin span. (The area’s congressman, John LaFalce, for reasons he has still never explained, sided with the Canadians and the steel bridge supporters.)
A group of young professionals looking for ways to make the area more viable, the New Millennium Group, took up the bridge issue as one of their projects. They knew the steel twin span wasn’t good enough, but it wasn’t until Bruno Freschi, dean of the UB School of Architecture and Planning, joined with San Francisco bridge engineer T.Y. Lin, and produced a spectacular design that the New Millennium Group had an image to accompany their passion.
Freschi is an internationally-known architect who holds the Order of Canada, that nation’s highest civilian award. He is a Fellow of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada, he was elected to the Royal Academy of Art, and he is an Associate Member of the American Institute of Architects. Lin is one of the world’s most accomplished bridge makers.
They came up with a curved single-pylon cable-stayed bridge, made of concrete. It wasn’t only gorgeous, it also avoided a mass of problems the steel bridge promoters were trying very hard to obscure. The steel-bridge plan called for building one new three-lane bridge, then shutting down the 1927 three-lane bridge for two or three years of redecking and other repairs. During all that time heavy truck traffic would be rerouted through Buffalo’s city streets, through Olmsted’s Delaware Park, along expressways ordinarily full of passenger cars. City traffic would be a mess for most of a decade. Furthermore, the piers of the old bridge hadn’t been inspected for more than two decades and many engineers are convinced that the entire 1927 bridge will need replacement before very long; they say any rehabilitation work will be of only transient value. Even if they’re only partly right, in the not-too-distant future, the crossing would be back to three lanes and the city would once again suffer years of disruption while the major construction of a second replacement bridge went on.
The Freschi-Lin bridge—or something like it— could be built with no interruption in ordinary traffic, with little disruption of the city’s life. On the day it was finished, Freschi said, “You cut the ribbon on the new bridge and shut down the old bridge.” For some opponents of the twin span, the Freschi-Lin design was what had to be built in that space; for others, it was an example of what could be done if the PBA would step back and think about the possibilities. Very soon, the names of other bridge builders were being bruited about, most notably the great Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava and the much-honored American engineer Eugene Figg.
For the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority, the Freschi-Lin design was a nightmare come true. Before it appeared, people opposed to the twin span could only say, “It’s ugly, we need something better.” Once Freschi-Lin was on the table, people could say, “Tell us how and why your anachronistic steel bridge is better than this.” And neither the PBA nor its most relentless supporters—the Buffalo Niagara Partnership (the current name for what used to be the Chamber of Commerce) and the Buffalo News (the city’s only daily newspaper)—had an adequate response.
A small group of arguments against Freschi-Lin and any other concrete cable-stayed bridge were repeated again and again by PBA spokesmen: cable-stayed bridges are no good in this climate because they accumulate ice and fall down, all those cables would confuse birds and they’d crash into them at night, the single pylon would negatively alter Lake Erie’s water levels, concrete bridges were far more expensive than a simple tried-and-true arched and trussed steel bridge, we’re ready to go right now....
None of those arguments was true. None of them.
Why were they like that?
There were two sets of interests involved in the decision to improve services at the Buffalo-Fort Erie border crossing—one local, the other distant— and they had virtually nothing in common with one another.
The distant interests—those beneficiaries of NAFTA in Ontario and much of the US outside of Buffalo—were concerned about the flow of truck traffic across the border, nothing else. They had a single desideratum: as many trucks should make the trip as quickly and as cheaply as possible. The local interests—people who lived and worked in Buffalo and Fort Erie—were concerned about the impact of that truck traffic on their lives.
For Fort Erie, the trucks mean jobs and public structures. Fort Erie is almost totally dependent on the Peace Bridge. The Peace Bridge is the heart of Fort Erie’s economy. The Bridge provides jobs directly and indirectly, and it provides swell buildings that the town could not otherwise afford. For Buffalo, it’s not so simple. The area around the Peace Bridge Plaza has the city’s highest incidence of lung disease, a result of diesel trucks slowing down and idling, many think. Those NAFTA manufacturing jobs don’t come to Buffalo.
Someone on the PBA staff assumed or decided to act as if the old bridge had historical value. It had no significant historical value. There is nothing remarkable about its architecture and nothing significant about its existence. It is an aging bridge that will in a few years begin to have serious structural problems. It is a geriatric steel bridge that is becoming more and more expensive to maintain. The bridge staff and the Authority’s directors assumed that, or chose to act as if, the bridge had to be maintained at any cost and, when they set about finding ways to increase bridge capacity, they assumed that the most aesthetically pleasing way to do it would be to twin the current bridge. Probably they had reasons that made sense at the time, but in retrospect the decision was absurd. And irresponsibly costly.
So they selected a klutzy design and an anachronistic technology. Nothing wrong with that: new projects often begin where the old one left off, What usually happens then is you give serious consideration to design and impact issues, look at the new technology available since the last time you did this, and then you go on from there. But the PBA never took that next step: they settled on a twin span made of steel using a bridge technology no one had used for decades and they fought for it in every forum they could find, expending vast sums of public money, opposing any one and any idea that conflicted with theirs.
At least seven interlinked factors prevented the Buffalo and Public Bridge Authority from erecting their steel companion bridge:It was a dazzling variety of individuals, community groups, and public officials working, from their different perspectives and in terms of their different needs, toward the same end. It was public power so strong that, even with the extraordinary walls of secrecy and autonomy created by New York’s public corporation law, the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority could no longer continue ignoring all voices other than its own.—The New Millennium Group organized forums, gathered and analyzed data about the current bridge, presented information about other bridge projects in other cities, contravened the PBA’s claims about costs of its bridge, disruption to local traffic patterns, and so forth.
— Buffalo’s mayor, Anthony Masiello, refused to issue easements the PBA needed to begin construction. Robert Moses famously said that once one of his shovels broke ground his projects were all but unstoppable. The mayor’s refusal to issue the easements kept the PBA from getting that first shovel into the ground.
—Two highly-respected local service organizations, the Olmsted Conservancy and the Episcopal Church Home, filed suit in New York State Supreme Court to force the New York Department of Environmental Conservation to withdraw its approval of the segmented project and instead to require the PBA to do a full environmental impact study of the combined bridge and plaza projects.
—The Community Foundation and the Margaret L. Wendt Foundation, two of the area’s largest foundations, funded, in collaboration with Erie County and the City of Buffalo, the Public Consensus Review Panel. The Panel, which everyone soon referred to as the PCRP, included representation from a wide range of commercial, governmental, and civic agencies, as well as neighborhood groups. (Fort Erie officials refused to join the panel because there weren’t any Canadians on the panel, one of its officials said; John Lopinski, a Canadian and then-chairman of the Public Bridge Authority refused to take part for the same tautological reason.) The PCRP held several public hearings, at which scores of people gave ideas, provided technical information, testified about the impact of the proposed projects on them, offered suggestions for alternatives. The hearings were broadcast live on one of the city’s two public radio stations and on the public television station, WNED. The PBA boycotted the proceedings until it seemed as if Judge Eugene Fahey was about to rule against the segmented project, whereupon they proposed to send Canadian engineers to join the engineers the PCRP had evaluating various designs. That turned out to be little more than a delaying and muddying operation. Several months later, the Public Consensus Review Panel recommended that the Public Bridge Authority build a six-lane signature bridge and that it move its operations out of Front Park so the Olmsted Conservancy could restore Olmsted’s mutilated design. The PCRP had no status in law, but it provided a forum in which opposition to the steel companion span could develop focus and find support. The Public Consensus Review Panel gave voice to people the Public Bridge Authority wanted kept silent and kept the whole enterprise in public view long enough for legal opposition to take shape and become effective.
—One of the city’s independent weekly newspapers, Artvoice, took up the bridge issue and, over a two-year period, published more than 60 articles on various aspects of it by several different writers (I was one of them). During most of this time The Buffalo News, the city’s only daily newspaper mostly endorsed the proposals of the PBA, or ignored or underplayed opposition to the PBA’s plans. Tom Toles, the paper’s Pulizer-Prize-winning cartoonist, regularly took tough looks at Peace Bridge politics, but the paper’s critical thinking stopped there. “We had an editorial board decision and decided that the bridge is a dead issue,” the News’s editorial page editor said in July 1998. “The News is not interested in the bridge question any more and we won’t be running any more editorial comments on it.” And they didn’t, save for editorials saying the city should accept the PBA’s decision—until there was so much opposition to the twin span they could no longer avoid it.
—New York Supreme Court Judge Eugene Fahey refused to grant the PBA’s request that he order the city to issue the easements, and he agreed with the Episcopal Church Home and the Olmsted Conservancy that the PBA would have to stop everything it was doing until it did a full environmental impact study. His order meant the PBA could do nothing without paying heed to the very people who had been taking part in the Public Consensus Review Panel, which the PBA had boycotted so assiduously for more than a year.
—Senators Charles Schumer and Daniel Patrick Moynihan kept applying very public pressure on the PBA about its continued inaction after Fahey’s decision. Fahey’s decision became final in June 2000. The PBA did nothing about it all summer and fall except to file a notice of intent to appeal. Moynihan’s chief of staff, Tony Bullock, visited Buffalo and told the Common Council’s Bridge Task Force that the only thing holding up progress on the bridge was the PBA’s intransigence. Senator Schumer invited the operators of the Ambassador Bridge in Detroit to town to explore their idea of building with private funds a new bridge a mile down river from the Peace Bridge.
The End of the Affair
On November 15, 2000, Victor Martucci, chairman of the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority, shut it all down. He called a press conference and announced that the PBA was voiding the several American and Canadian permits it had obtained, it was dropping all plans for appealing Judge Fahey’s ruling, and it would, in a new partnership with Fort Erie and Buffalo, undertake a fully open all-inclusive environmental impact study.
His remarks were followed by celebratory speechifying by his fellow board members and by several politicians from Buffalo and Ontario, and if you didn’t know any better you’d have thought it was the beginning of a sensitively-designed public works inquiry rather than the end of a long, bitter, and very expensive public policy war. But that’s the way things are in politics: you start from where you are now, not from what you thought last week.
When asked why, after all this time, the PBA had reversed itself, Martucci said, “The judge’s order made it a new landscape.”
There is a fundamental irony to the Peace Bridge War that cannot be lost on the Public Bridge Authority. Had they not tried the gambit of a segmented project so they could avoid community involvement in an environmental impact study early on, the EIS they would have had then would have been far simpler and gentler and quicker than the one they face now. Now, the public is alerted to and knowledgeable about alternative designs. There are serious and informed questions about whether or not this is the proper place for an expanded truck crossing at all. Had the PBA been willing to abandon the ego satisfaction or profits to steel manufacturers, and had it embraced rather than fought the consistently-escalating opposition to the steel twin span design, had it opted for a more economical and more aesthetically pleasing bridge of the kind being built nearly everywhere else, then in all likelihood construction would already be underway.
And there is another irony that cannot be lost on the Canadian officials who fought so hard to suppress American public opinion and push this project through without the full environmental impact study American law requires. Only because of the long delay did Americans come to learn about the obscure Canadian law that exempts all Canadian government offices from rental payments on tolled border crossings. At every tolled bridge and tunnel crossing along our three-thousand-mile border from the Atlantic to the Pacific, Americans pay rent for the space used by immigration and customs and other agencies and the parallel Canadian agencies do not pay any rent at all. At every one of those crossings, the Canadian share is taken out of toll revenues, half of which are paid by Americans. Every year, Americans pay millions of dollars more to support these bridge and tunnel border crossings than Canadians do—a fact that would have continued to languish in bureaucratic obscurity had not the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority spent so long fighting for its steel twin span project and trying to avoid American environmental law.
Was it worth the fight?
“I don’t see what the fuss is about,” a Canadian official said a few months after public opposition to the steel twin span developed. “A bridge is supposed to get people from one side to the other. Beauty has nothing to do with it. If it gets people from one side to the other it’s done its job. That bridge in Detroit is ugly. It gets people from one side to the other and you don’t hear anybody complaining about that bridge, do you?”
He missed the point. The Ambassador Bridge in Detroit, like the Peace Bridge in Buffalo, is old. No one complained about the old Peace Bridge in Buffalo either. What people complained about was the plan to build another just like it. They couldn’t control what happened 75 years ago, but they thought they should influence what happened next year or the year after that. Rational people make a fuss when a fuss is useful.
The Canadian official, and others who are similarly tone-deaf to the melodies of architecture at its best, might take instruction from the great Spanish architect/engineer/artist Santiago Calatrava. "I love being an architect of bridges," Calatrava told a New York Times reporter last year. "Take the Golden Gate Bridge, a perfect work of art. Without it, San Francisco would be just one of many beautiful bays along the Pacific coast of the Americas. Instead, it makes the bay unique in the world. The idea of a bridge adding dignity to a place is very important. That's why every bridge has to be different. It is made for different people, above all for different surroundings. It can be in a horrible urban spot, but it can rescue its environs."****
Events like the Peace Bridge War are instructive. I think it unlikely that any industrial group or public officials will, in the foreseeable future, simply try to push through a massive project in Buffalo. Shortly after taking office in January 2000, the new County Executive put on hold all plans for a new convention center; he said before anything more was done there would have to be a full environmental impact study. The intensive community involvement in a project to replace an aging bridge in Rochester, New York, 90 miles away from Buffalo, was consciously structured to avoid the kind of imbroglio that happened at the Peace Bridge. There’s a generation of young-to-middle-aged professionals who made their political bones in the Peace Bridge War and they’re not likely to sit in silence when other large public works projects come into view.
I love Santiago Calatrava’s notion that a fine bridge can “rescue its environs,” but the statement about the importance of the hand of man in the human landscape I like best of all is in Wallace Stevens’s poem, “The Anecdote of the Jar”:In that poem, the simple placing of the jar imposes or reveals an order to the universe that was not there previously. For Stevens, the joy of nature is not violated by that human act; rather a point of order, a place where the imagination can take hold, is established.I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.
The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in the air.
It took dominion everywhere.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird of bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.
Architecture doesn’t just occupy space; it also helps us understand and experience space, it organizes space. Architecture at once joins and redefines the order of all other things in sight. It is organic. That’s what Stevens’ poem is about.
The chorus of voices opposing ugliness and secrecy at the Peace Bridge stayed the advocates of ugliness from setting to work. In this place. This time. This won’t be the only place and it won’t be the only time. “The building of a public work,” wrote Robert A. Caro, “shapes a city perhaps more permanently than any other action of government. Large-scale public works shape a city for generations. Some public works—most notably the great bridges and highways...–shape it for centuries if not, indeed, forever” (p. 753).
These are wars worth fighting.
*”No state shall....pass any bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law impairing the obligation of contracts....
United States Constitution, Article I, section 10.
**The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, Vintage, NY 1975 (1974), p. 631. Not much has been written about public benefit corporations. I never fully understood their potential until I read Caro’s instructive and fascinating chapter on how Moses manipulated New York public benefit corporation law (“The Warp on the Loom,” pp. 615-636). The specific legislation establishing the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority can be found at New York Consolidated Law Service, Chapter 149.
***Their full report is The Peace Bridge: Structural Conference, Report of Findings, Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority, October 1994.
****Alan Riding, “Santiago Calatrava: Architect, Artist, Engineer,” New York Times, 31 December 2000.