(Artvoice February 19, 1999)

A Bridge Not Too Far
by Bruce Jackson


The Done Deal

It was supposed to be a done deal. The twin span bridge from Buffalo to Fort Erie proposed by the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority and endorsed by the Greater Buffalo Partnership (the fancy name for what used to call itself the Chamber of Commerce) was inevitable. The alternative proposal, the graceful signature bridge designed by UB Architecture Dean Bruno Freschi and San Francisco engineer T. Y. Lin, was dead.

No matter that the Freschi-Lin bridge would have been fully functional years earlier, cost less, be kinder to the environment, consume less public land and help reclaim some of the Olmstead park land now consumed by the inefficient toll plaza the Authority's plan would not only keep but enlarge. No matter that it would have given Buffalo an identity recognized around the world. No matter that it would have provided the city something that is really beautiful.

The Bridge Authority and the Greater Buffalo Partnership had their reasons for their stodgy design and they weren't budging. We'll never know the real reasons why they came up with and got so defensive about that ugly and expensive twin span. We'll never know if the determining factor was ego, money, bad taste, or all three. All we know is they had their twin span idea early on and they never seriously considered any alterative.

That became clear at a public meeting of the International Joint Commission held in Amherst on January 28. Commissioner Susan Bayh asked the Bridge Authority "if you ever considered a single-span, single-pylon bridge?" The answers were all evasive. One focused on the problem of having a bridge close to a water intake, which it turned out had nothing to do with the Freschi-Lin design. Another argued that the current bridge couldn't be taken down because it was a historic structure. The current bridge has never been declared a historic structure by any agency of any government; it's old and ugly, it's not historic. The bridge manager argued that the cables on the bridge might cause problems for migrating birds. No ornithologist has suggested that migrating birds are so stupid they can't fly around a bridge. The PBA never gave Commissioner Bayh a straight answer to any of her questions.

Pat to the Rescue

The PBA plan began to unravel when the construction bids came in last month One of their major justifications for rejecting the Freschi-Lin signature bridge was their twin span was far cheaper. Their numbers, we now know, were fictional. On January 5, an editorial in the Buffalo News reported that the bids put the project "$10 million to $15 million over budget." It was far worse: a news article in the same edition of the News said the low and high bids were $15 to $45 million over the projected budget, differences of 38% and 69%. The News editorial justified the Authority's gross error in budgeting: there was, the paper said, "a national abundance of bridge projects that erodes competition among bridge builders."

That seemed so goofy I did a Lexis search. No other newspaper in the United States has reported increasing bridge costs because of "a national abundance of bridge projects." I couldn't even find the abundant bridges.

The PBA probably would have had its way had it not been for the persistence of Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. He'd been a supporter of the signature bridge plan all along, but except for Buffalo Common Council member James Pitts, he was out there by himself. Then Charles Schumer replaced Alphonse D'Amato in the Senate and shortly thereafter he and Moynihan coauthored letters to the American Canadian Joint Authority and the US Coast Guard asking them to block construction of the twin span.

They asked Admiral James M. Loy, Commander of the Coast Guard, to "deny the permit for the Peace Bride Capacity Expansion Project as submitted by the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority on January 26, 1998. We make this request in light of recent developments that cast serious doubts as to the economic and environmental viability of the Authority's proposal to construct a new twin span and rehabilitate the current Peace Bridge structure." They noted that the "attempt to segment the bridge construction from its related plaza and approach road improvements represents a purposeful effort to evade the scrutiny of alternatives that would otherwise be required."

(The Bridge Authority has consistently insisted that the bridge and toll plaza projects be separate. Freschi's original design for the signature bridge was up river from the present site, a design that would have made for a shorter bridge and would have returned to the public some of the Olmstead park area that the current plaza occupies. When he submitted his plan to the Authority he was encouraged to draw it so it would land at the current plaza. He said that was poor planning and poor design, but the Authority insisted.)

In their letter the next day to the International Joint Commission, Moynihan and Schumer repeated the problems they had reported to Admiral Loy and also said that "alternative proposals exist that have not been fully evaluated."

Talk is Money

The Authority has consistently argued that any inquiry into the grounds for their decision-the money, the water flow, whatever-would extend the time for the new bridge, so the public would be hurt. To every attempt to question any of their assumptions they say, delay will increase costs. They argued the Moynihan-Schumer letters on the grounds that looking at the impact of the two-phase construction project would cost more money. The gambit is, even if they did a rotten job we shouldn't question it because pausing to fix their errors will increase costs.

The Buffalo News bought that cockamamie logic. In a December 28 editorial urging Attorney General Spitzer to keep Dennis Vacco appointee Brian Lipke (president and CEO of Gibraltar Steel and a big Republican party contributor) on the the PBC, they concluded that we shouldn't "reopen the design debate" because that would confound the timetable and increase costs. "What is clear," the News said, "is that the Authority cannot let the unexpected extra costs of bridge construction erode its stated commitment to building a 'gateway' U.S. plaza that will embody the community's hopes for symbolism and greatness. Buffalo deserves, and demands, that much at least."

No: Buffalo deserves a good deal more, both from its bridge commission and from its only daily newspaper.

Attorney General Spitzer did not take the News' advice: he replaced Brian Lipke with with former Buffalo Common Council member at large Barbra Kavanaugh, and announced that he and Kavanaugh were strong supporters of the signature bridge and the efforts of Senators Moynihan and Schumer. There was an immediate Republican response: State Department of Transportation Commissioner Joseph Boardman pulled Robert Russell off the Authority and gave his seat to Brian Lipke. Lipke won't chair the PBC any more--it's time for that position to cycle to one of the five Canadian members--but he'll still be on the PBA to argue for the twin span, to which he is passionately devoted.

A One Paper Town and the Silence of the Pols

This is a major construction project, one that will matter in public life here for a hundred years, yet the mayor has kept silent, as have all of the common council members except James Pitts, all of the state legislators, and all of the region's congressmen.

What's really odd about all this is, hardly anybody except Brian Lipke defends the twin span. You talk to the mayor, the council members, all the others, they say "Oh, it's terrible, it's just awful." You talk to executives at the News and they say the same thing. It's like they're talking about the weather: something that just happens, something we relate to passively because there's nothing to be done about it.

Being a one newspaper town hurt us badly in this sorry process. Had the Courier-Express still been alive we would have seen a lively debate in the press about the merits of the various proposals and the PBC's refusal to consider them seriously. Some of those silent pols would have been challenged and they would have had to speak out. But there is no second daily paper and the only one we have decided the issue just wasn't important enough for editorial examination. "We had an editorial board decision and decided that the bridge is a dead issue," the News editorial page editor told me late last July. "The News is not interested in the bridge question any more and we won't be running any more editorial comments on it." Without major competition and with nothing to gain, the News just backed off and the politicians hid.

I've heard two hypotheses for the silence of the pols. One is that rich developers paid everybody off. I think that's just conspiracy theory. Developers don't care which plan gets adopted-they just care that SOME plan gets adopted. The construction industry is going to make its money whatever design is selected. The other hypothesis is more likely: the pols all felt that the Authority was so entrenched in its position, the Canadians so opposed to Buffalo getting a signature bridge, that there was no way they could win. Politicians rarely join battles they don't think they can win.

Word is out that the enthusiastic pursuit of the signature bridge by our two senators and the state's attorney general has the editorial board at the News rethinking its hands-off decision of last July. One editor there said, "Maybe there's time to do something after all." Well, that's news.

The Big Letdown

There's been all this drivel the past few months about how Bill Clinton let us down by unzipping his fly for Monica in the oval office and then trying to pretend it hadn't happened. Bah! That did me no harm that I know of. I'm far more concerned by how we were let down by the NFTA, the chairman of which joined the PBA board and just went along with everything Brian Lipke said. I'm concerned by how we were let down by every one of our local, state and national representatives except Moynihan, Schumer, Spitzer and Pitts. I'm concerned by how we were let down by the Buffalo News, which early on argued against the twin span and then when it seemed that the Commission wasn't going to budge just folded and said to hell with it.

They all stood silent and let this idiocy happen. Bill Clinton's turpitude was nothing compared to the way those elected and appointed and hired officials let you and me down.

Here's What to Do

Cities don't get many chances for greatness and Buffalo has shot itself in the foot before: Route 190 isolated most of us from the waterfront and Route 198 bisected one of Frederick Law Olmstead's greatest urban parks. The convention center chokes downtown streets, a huge office building squats over lower Main Street, and the trolley system strangles downtown business. Building the new UB campus on a suburban Amherst swamp rather than one of the three available Buffalo sites shifted a huge middle-class wage-earner base out of the city. It's time we got one right.

After my previous article on the Peace Bridge follies in these pages several people asked me what they might do. At the time, I didn't have much to suggest because the project seemed dead. Now I don't think it is. Moynihan, Schumer and Spitzer are right: we've got to fight this, and we can.

Call the mayor and tell him you're sick of his inaction and his silence and you'll remember it next election. Call your Common Council representative, your congressman's office and your state representatives' offices. Call the governor's office. Senator Moynihan has asked Governor Pataki to join the fight for the signature bridge, but he hasn't responded. Pataki is stoking up for a presidential campaign and he might not want to go into that tagged as the governor who looked at beauty and endorsed ugly.

Let them all know that you feel you feel cheated by their failure to act now and that you'll remember it next November and the November after and the November after. Tell them you'll remember what they did for you or to you every time you drive along the Buffalo waterfront and see either the pathetically ugly and hugely expensive twin span or the gorgeous soaring signature bridge that is still a very real possibility. Call Moynihan, Schumer, Spitzer and Pitts and say thank you for fighting for us and please keep it up.

All those calls will take you maybe 30 minutes. If enough of us do it and the pols take us seriously, we'll get paid back every time we cross the Freschi-Lin bridge and see it curving into space before us, and every time we drive into or out of the city. It is still possible to avoid the truly ugly.

      SEN. DANIEL PATRICK MOYNIHAN, United States Senate
      Buffalo Office
      Guaranty Building, Suite 203
      28 Church St.
      Buffalo, NY 14202, (716) 551-4097

      SEN. CHARLES E. SCHUMER, Democrat New York
      (202) 224-6542
      229 Dirksen Senate Office Building
      United States Senate
      Washington, DC 20510

      JOHN J. LAFALCE, Washington Office
      2310 Rayburn House Office Bldg.
      Washington, DC 20515
      phone (202) 225-3231
      fax (202) 225-8693

      State Capitol Albany, NY 12224
      phone (518) 474-8390,
      fax (518) 474-3767
      e-mail gov.pataki@chamber.state.ny.us

      SAM HOYT, Assembly District: 144
      E-mail: hoyts@assembly.state.ny.us
      District Office
      125 Main St., Buffalo, NY 14203
      (716) 852-2795

      ARTHUR O. EVE, Assembly District: 141
      E-mail: evea@assembly.state.ny.us
      District Office
      498 Northland Ave., Buffalo, NY 14211
      (716) 895-2464

      Assembly District: 140
      Email: schimmr@assembly.state.ny.us
      District Office
      3514 Delaware Ave., Suite 201, Kenmore, NY 14217
      (716) 873-2540

      PAUL A. TOKASZ , Assembly District: 143
      E-mail: tokaszp@assembly.state.ny.us
      District Office
      125 Main St., Buffalo, NY 14203
      (716) 852-2791

      659 Ridge Rd.
      Lackawanna, NY 14128, (716) 822-0462

      25 Delaware Ave.
      Buffalo, NY 14202, (716) 858-8853

      GEORGE A. HOLT, JR. (D)
      427 William St.
      Buffalo, NY 14204, (716) 842-0490

      25 Delaware Ave.
      Buffalo, NY 14202, (716) 858-8805

      1330 Broadway
      Buffalo, NY 14212, (716) 895-9332

      155 Lawn Ave. - Room 209
      Buffalo, NY 14207, (716) 874-3257

      CRYSTAL D. PEOPLES (D), Majority Leader
      790 East Delevan Ave.
      Buffalo, NY 14215, (716) 894-0914

      2956 Union Rd.
      Cheektowaga, NY 14227, (716) 684-0331

      1500 Union Rd. - Suite 200
      West Seneca, NY 14224, (716) 675-8817

      CHARLES M. SWANICK (D), Chairman
      3200 Elmwood Ave. - Room 115
      |Kenmore, NY 14217, (716) 877-3986

      1201 Colvin Blvd.
      Tonawanda, NY 14223, (716) 873-1650

      184 Buffalo St.
      Hamburg, NY 14075, (716) 646-2378

      FREDERICK J. MARSHALL (R), Minority Leader
      25 Ernst Place - P.O. Box 524
      East Aurora, NY 14052, (716) 652-9088

      3131 Sheridan Dr.
      Amherst, NY 14226, (716) 836-0198

      5500 Main St. - Suite 204 B
      Williamsville, NY 14221, (716) 633-0617

      8625 Main St.
      Williamsville, NY 14221, (716) 631-8695

      DALE W. LARSON (R)
      5580 Broadway
      Lancaster, NY 14086, (716) 681-6666

      Mayor Anthony A. Masiello,

copyright 1999 Bruce Jackson

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