(Artvoice May 27, 1999)
The Peace Bridge Plaza
Dog & Pony Show
by Bruce Jackson
If you doubted that the efforts of signature bridge advocates were having an effect on the Public Bridge Authority, consider the dog & pony show they put on last Wednesday for the local press. So far as I've been able to learn, the only newspaper regularly covering the Peace Bridge story that did not get invited to the meeting was Artvoice. I was doing research in the Peace Bridge office three of the four mornings before the meeting, and they faxed us a press release immediately after the meeting, so it wasn't that they didn't know how to reach us.
Vincent Lamb, executive vice president of Parsons Transportation (the parent company of the PBA's longtime engineering firm, DeLeuw Cather), the group responsible for the twin span design, presented his firm's analysis of the cost and timeline for a signature span. Parsons is a huge corporation. Lamb offered three major conclusions: the signature bridge would cost twice as much as we've been told, the plaza designed by Freschi would require acquisition of 140 buildings on the West Side, and the complete signature bridge and plaza project would take ten years. He also said there were unresolved environmental concerns, like what a signature span would do to bird migration patterns and the status of the bridge as an historical structure.
It must have been a real performance. I assume there were charts, perhaps slides. I don't know because, as I said, Artvoice wasn't invited to the dance. I do know that Lamb had no evidence for any of his major assertions, and that his firm elected not to look at a good deal of evidence readily available to them. According to Peace Bridge staff, he consulted only units within Parsons Transportation Group, people who had no direct knowledge of the signature bridge at all. Which suggests that the conclusions are made up, fiction, smoke and mirrors, jive.
Had Artvoice been admitted to the Parsons Transportation presentation, these are the questions I would have hoped to have heard Vincent Lamb answer:1. Given that Parsons Transportation's estimate of construction costs for the bridge it designed after spending somewhere between three and six million dollars of PBA money was off by nearly sixty percent (they estimated $57 million, the lowest bid came in at $89 million), why should we expect that your estimate of the cost of building the Freschi-Lin bridge is any more accurate?Alas, we have no answers to any of those questions, nor others like them. No one in the PBA board room saw fit to ask them. That doesn't mean the questions go away; it means only that the PBA and its prime contractor put on a damage control dog & pony show in which they tried to make such questions go away. That only works when you're providing answers to the questions people really have, and when your answers are as honest as you can make them, neither of which seems to have been the case at Peace Bridge Plaza office last Wednesday morning.
2. When you were costing out your vision or version of the Freschi-Lin bridge, why didn't you ask to look at any of the financial documents prepared by Cannon, Freschi, Lin, and the several consultants who did detailed work for them? That is, why did you use hypothetical numbers from your own staff, which knew nothing about the Freschi-Lin design, when there were real numbers available for you to have worked with?
3. You claim that Freschi's plaza would require demolishing 140 privately owned properties. Freschi says it's fewer than 30. Why should we have confidence in your far larger number when you never talked to Freschi or asked to see any of his plans? How can you predict with such confidence the footprint of a design you know virtually nothing about?
4. How much was Parsons Transportation paid to do this study?
5. The press release says you presented "the conclusion of an investigation." According to Bridge staff and Collins & Company (the PBA's press agent) you spent three weeks to a month working on it. Is that truly long enough to have designed multiple alternatives to the Freschi-Lin bridge and cost them out? Does Parsons Transportation ordinarily present cost and impact conclusions based on three or four weeks of work, with no examination of available primary documents?
6. According to Business First, you said that the Freschi-Lin plan "lacked the proper design to mesh with the New York State Thruway." Dean Freschi says their plan utilizes all existing Thruway connections. These seem to be contradictory statements. Why didn't anyone at Parsons Transportation try to find out which of you had it right?
7. No public or private agency or organization with responsibility for designating structures as having historical value has said the Peace Bridge was of any interest, and one--the Preservation Society-has said it ought to be torn down. No ornithological agency has ever expressed the slightest concern about what the signature bridge might do to bird traffic. The bird and historical issues are tired old things, and everyone around here knows that. Why did you resurrect them? Is there new evidence or, as seems most likely, are you just hauling stuff out of trash bins? If the former, what? If the latter, why would you do that?
8. Your own estimates put construction of the twin span, refurbishing the old bridge, design and building of a revamped plaza at ten years. You project Freschi-Lin at ten years. Even if you had examined data for Freschi-Lin and even if you're right, what point are you making, given that at your worst-time scenario for them is no longer than yours?
9. Even to a corporation as huge as Parsons Transportation, a $200-300 million project is attractive, desirable, worth fighting for. What steps, if any, did Parsons take to ensure that its evaluation of the competitive design was fair, objective, and free of self-interest?
10. How much more of Front Park will your new plaza consume? What other local properties will your new plaza and access roads consume? Which of the two plaza designs will serve Buffalo better and harm its citizens less?
And what happens when an organization like the Public Bridge Authority and its press agents and its other hired guns fail to bully away the reasonable questions? You get what happened Monday: the City of Buffalo, the Olmstead Conservancy, and the Episcopal Church Home of Western New York all filed suit in state supreme court to force the PBA to do what it would not do willingly: pay attention to the people and play by the rules.
Lately, it seems I've been asking more questions here than I'm answering. Well, that's not necessarily so bad. One thing I've learned in a lifetime of scholarship is that questions that don't get answered may be as informative and helpful as the ones that do. Next time, I'm going to try to deal with a whole range of questions, some with answers, some with partial answers, and some with no answers at all. Questions like
--Who owns the Peace Bridge?
--How much money do they make and what do they do with it?
--Why are they backing the Maloney-LaFalce evaluation plan and saying nothing about Senator Schumer's far more comprehensive and democratic plan?
--What single lie about public money has the PBA and its representatives told more times than any other?
--What is going to happen?