(Artvoice  24 February 2000)
 

Peace Bridge Update
The Engineers Are Stealing the Train

by Bruce Jackson
 

The Public Consensus Review Panel, the group set up by the city, county, and two local foundations to consider Peace bridge and plaza options, heard a preliminary report from its Canadian and American consulting engineers at a 4 ½-hour meeting February 17. It seemed less like a consultant’s report than one of those Fidel Castro talkathons in Havana.
 

Power in PowerPoint

The engineers talked for all but 25 minutes of the 4 ½ hour meeting. They showed 49 PowerPoint slides and talked in detail about each. They reported at length and showed drawings and paintings of 3-lane companion and 6-lane cable-stayed bridges, as they had been asked to do.  They also reported at length on and showed drawings and paintings of a hugely expensive six-lane suspension bridge no one had asked them to look at and which everyone agrees never was or will be an option for this project. They told the Panel what they thought about social policy, New York State Bonding law, community development and all sorts of things for which they apparently had not the slightest competence and only the most marginal and stale data, such as 10-year-old census and commerce reports and estimates of apartment occupancy based on drive-by sightings.

They passed out a 48-page booklet that contained printouts of every PowerPoint slide but the most important one, the page with the bridges' cost estimates. Some charts had egregious multiplication and conversion errors (such as multiplying 38.47 by 200 and getting 1,480 instead of 7,694 or saying 746 meters equals 656 feet instead of 199 feet) that suggested a document assembled in haste. Everything was printed in huge letters, like those newspapers for the nearly-blind, and at the bottom of every page they printed in equally large letters the names of the two engineering firms hired by the Americans on the left, the two firms hired by the Canadians on the right, and in the middle, in much larger letters, the phrase “Bi-National Team,” as if this were some kind of jock convention.
 

What Happened to Bruno’s Bridge?

The only reason we’re not suffering construction of  an ugly companion span now is because Buffalo architect Clinton Brown and businessman Jack Cullen looked at the PBA’s companion bridge plan and said we could and should do better. They identified the need, but the thing didn’t take fire until Bruno Freschi, then dean of U.B.’s School of Architecture, and San Francisco bridge designer T. Y. Lin, came up with the idea of a single-pylon cabled-stayed curved segmental concrete bridge. It would, they said, not only be a breathtaking landmark, but it could be erected faster and less expensively than the PBA’s steel companion bridge. Later, famed bridge-builder Eugene Figg visited and said the same thing: the community could have with far less cost and less disruption a gorgeous bridge using 21st century technology rather than a stodgy bridge using early 20th century technology.

The Review Panel’s American and Canadian consulting engineers were impressed by none of that. They drew pictures of and did preliminary calculations for a straight cable-stayed bridge with two pylons, which they said was too complicated and too expensive to build. To my knowledge, no one had previously suggested a two-pylon cable-stayed bridge. That was their hypothetical design and they found it wanting. Who cares?

They did no drawings or calculations for anything like the curved single pylon cable-stayed bridge suggested by Freschi and Lin. Their reason: “Curved has complications we don’t need.” Whose needs were they talking about—theirs or the community’s? They didn’t say and no one on the Panel asked.

They said, “The only thing going for it is some people like this idea of a curved structure. But there’s nothing else going for it.” I guess you could say that about any beautiful design when there’s an uglier design available to take its place. If the only function of a bridge is to get trucks from one side of a river to the other, they’re right. Most of us think there are other factors that deserve consideration.

Yes, a curved bridge requires more calculating and a greater variety of concrete forms than a straight bridge, and that takes time and money. They didn’t say how much more expensive or how much more design work would have to be done. Are they concerned about a week or about six months, about $1million or $20 million? All they said was they weren’t interested in it and the fact that people here liked it was of no moment whatsoever.

So the engineers, without any direction from the Panel, have flushed from consideration the single design more people prefer than any other. That’s not consultation; that’s hubris.
 

Numbers Games

The engineers considered four bridge designs. There was a spread of $15 or $20 million in three of the four bridge construction cost estimates; in each case, the Canadian team provided the high number, the American team the low number. The only bridge cost they agreed upon was the companion span advocated by the Public Bridge Authority; that’s because they accepted the PBA’s numbers.

The engineers also accepted the PBA’s timelines, which I found stunning. For several years the PBA said its bridge-plaza plan would take ten full years. When several internationally famous bridge experts said they could design a signature bridge and plaza, have the required environmental impact study, and cut the ribbon in seven years, the PBA at first went into denial and then did a presentation for the Panel in which they subtracted three years from their timeline. There was no explanation how they shrunk their project by thirty percent, they just did it. It was on the order of “Let there be light.” Well, maybe that’s a little grand. Say it’s on the order of that famous Dali painting with the melting watches.

But the engineers are economical: they didn’t let those years disappear, they moved them elsewhere. They ADDED two or three years to all the alternative plans. In their report, the signature design that everyone else says will take no more than seven years will take nine or ten years. Why? They project a three-stage design-bid-construct sequence with two years in which everything stops for the bidding. New York State construction projects are done that way, but the PBA is not subject to that law. Standard practice in the construction industry now is design and bid. There was no need to add those two-year extensions to the alternative designs. When pressed for justification the engineers had none. They just did it, just in case.

They included in all the alternative plans two years for an environmental impact study, but they did not include any time for any studies for the PBA. That seems hardly realistic, given the cases on exactly that issue now on hold in Judge Eugene Fahey’s court. Judge Fahey has made it clear that he has no intention of letting the PBA engage in a $200 million construction project without the consent of the community. The engineers ignored all of that.

The result of all this adding years to alternatives and subtracting years from the PBA plan was a prediction by the engineers that a signature span or any other design couldn’t break ground for 51/2 years, and the PBA could break ground in moments. I think of my Italian buddy Teresa who says, at moments like this,  “Sure, and if my grandfather had wheels he’d be a wheelbarrow.”

They estimated that the cheapest plaza would be merely modifying the present one, which is no surprise since doing nothing is almost always cheaper than doing something. They estimated $50 million for acquiring property for a new plaza north of the current site, which thereby made all alternatives to the single plan the PBA is willing to fund much more expensive. Several Panel members asked them to factor in the value to the community of a restored Front Park. They refused, saying it was too difficult. Jeff Belt said they might look at what comparable cities have spent recently developing or restoring parks. The engineers continued to demur, saying it was too difficult so they just wouldn’t include those numbers but the community and county could do that if it wished. Ed Cosgrove, Judy Fisher, and Mark Mitskovski were eloquent about the value of the restored park system to the community, and all said it was unreasonable to ignore it. The engineers just wouldn’t go there. They were willing to estimate the cost of buying property for a new plaza but adamantly refused to look at the benefits to the city of a restored Olmsted park system.

They made other curious choices with their numbers. The included the cost of design in all the alternative bridges but did not include in the total cost for the companion span the $10 million the PBA has already spent on design. By that logic, the PBA could erect its bridge then look around and say, “Our bridge is free.” Well, no, it isn’t, and that $10 million is part of their costs. Neither did the engineers include in their estimates for the PBA bridge the cost of redecking the old bridge, doing all the repairs the PBA says it doesn’t need but it does (the 1928 bridge is decrepit), and replacing the Parker truss with an arch so it matches the new companion bridge. They put the cost of the companion span at $110 million, the PBA’s numbers. I don’t know anyone else who believes those numbers. They didn’t include any projections for maintenance, nor did they note that the annual cost of maintaining an anachronistic steel bridge is several times the cost of maintaining a modern concrete bridge.

Where they subtracted costs from the companion span, they added them to the cable-stayed bridge. All the outside consultants have put it at $80 or $90 million, they put it at $125-140 million. I asked one of the engineers why their numbers were 50% higher than everyone else’s. Well, he said, he wasn’t sure. Maybe they took other things into account. What things? Hard to tell. They’d have to look at it.

I thought that’s what they’d been doing the past four months, looking at it.

When Panel members questioned their numbers they responded, “Well, these aren’t our final numbers, they’re just our tentative numbers.” Then why was everybody there? If the numbers don’t mean anything why were they reporting them and why did everyone spend four and a half hours of a Thursday afternoon listening to them and discussing them? They promised accurate numbers the following week, at the Panel’s February 23 meeting.

Mostly, it seemed, they looked at the deleterious effect of things. Buffalo Commissioner of Human Resources Joe Ryan blew up at that. He asked why they didn’t look at the advantages to the city of getting some people into better housing, having a restored park, a more harmonious plaza, and so forth. The engineer’s answer went on for a long time but I think the sense of it was that it was easier to calculate what things cost than it was to estimate the good that would be result from the work.

The effect of all of this is, the PBA’s juggled and worked-over numbers look like a great bargain and anything else looks like a great burden. It was an astonishing performance, almost surreal,  and I think it left some members of the Panel not just exhausted but also stunned. They had thought the consultants were working for them, now the consultants were setting the limits, telling them what they could and couldn’t have, what they should and shouldn’t want.
 

The PBA

The role of the PBA in all of this remains weird. Even though they agreed to take part in the review process several months ago in an attempt to get Judge Eugene Fahey to go away, they never sat at the table. At most meetings, Earl Rowe (the PBA’s general manager/corporate services) or Stephen F. Mayer (general manager/operations) sits on the periphery. On rare occasions both are there. They rarely take part in the conversations but sometimes put on full-scale performances, as last month when they spent an hour detailing plaza options they were willing to consider if someone else paid for them. This time, Earl Rowe stood up to announce that the PBA had no comments now but would prepare a formal response for the February 23 meeting.

No one ever challenges the PBA directly at these meetings, not even when they’re doing absurd things, like the time they disappeared those three years from their timeline. “We were told to treat them with kid gloves,” one member of the Panel told me. He said there had been a lot of worry that if Rowe or Mayer were confronted directly they would stop participating in the process. That strikes me as unlikely, given their anxiety to impress Judge Fahey with their sincerity and good-citizenship, but the fact remains that their utterances are hardly ever challenged and the parts of the engineers’ report that were obviously put in there to represent the PBA were allowed to slide by with hardly a critical glance. It will be interesting to see if the nice-nice-hands-off policy continues now that the PBA has gone public with its huge radio and tv anti-Review Panel ad campaign.
 

The Buffalo News

The Buffalo News headlined its article the next day, “Early figures on bridge top out at $250 million/Authority’s companion span is least costly, at less than $110 million.” That article appeared on the last page of section C. Few people would read it, but nearly everyone who skimmed the paper would read the headline, which was probably the intention. You had to read carefully and deep to figure out that the $250 million bridge was not the signature span, and you wouldn’t find out at all from the article that the PBA bridge would in fact cost a good deal more than $110 million.

“The cheapest alternative is that proposed by the Peace Bridge Authority,” wrote News reporter Tom Ernst. Sure it is---but only if you assume it has no maintenance costs and the old bridge needs no rehabilitation and the alternative bridges cost half again as much as experts in the field say they'll cost.  “The most costly would be $356 million,” he wrote. He didn’t say that this most costly alternative was a design suggested by no one on the Panel or in the community, that it had been thought up and tossed in at the last minute by the engineers.

One item in the article was worthy of note: “The authority in 1988 selected a companion design to add three lanes of traffic.” I didn’t know that the PBA had selected the companion span twelve years ago, nearly a decade before the design competition sponsored in part by the Buffalo News. Did the News know when it put the public through that exercise that the PBA had locked it all down in 1988?
 

What Now?

The February 22 meeting at which the engineers  were supposed to submit more reliable numbers and the PBA and the Episcopal Church Home were going to make detailed responses to the February 17 presentation was canceled without explanation early in the week. I would guess the meeting was canceled because the engineers weren’t ready with reliable numbers and didn’t want to be embarrassed again or members of the Panel decided it was time to take the steering wheel back from the engineers and were trying to figure out how to do it.

—What are the real costs of the various bridge and plaza designs?

— Will the engineers start answering the questions they’re being paid to answer or
            will they continue dancing to the PBA’s tunes?

— Will the huge amount of money the PBA is spending in its
            anti-Consensus-Panel-start-construction-now advertising campaign have
            any effect on the panelists or politicians?

— If the engineers come in with a lousy decision will the Panel reject it and send
            something else on to the PBA?

We’ll start getting the answers out at six p.m. on Tuesday, February 29, when the engineers present their draft bridge system recommendation in a public meeting at the Channel 17 studios. They told me that their report will consist of one bridge and plaza system, no alternatives. (That presentation will be broadcast from 6-8 p.m. on WNEQ channel 23 and WNED AM 970. It will be rebroadcast on both Sunday March 5, from 3-5 p.m.)

The key public meeting will be the following Tuesday and Wednesday, March 7 and March 8, beginning at 5 pm both evenings. At that meeting the public will be able to comment and ask questions, presumably of both the engineers and the panelists. (Those sessions will be broadcast live on WNED-AM.).

Soon after that, the Public Consensus Review Panel will makes its recommendation to the Public Bridge Authority. That is when we’ll learn the answer to the key question: Is the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority capable of respecting any opinions or needs other than its own?
 
 
 
 
 
 

copyright 2000 Bruce Jackson

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