(Artvoice 2 March 2000)
The Engineers Speak:
Buying the PBA Party Line
by Bruce Jackson
The American and Canadian engineering firms hired by the Public Consensus Review Panel and the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority presented their preliminary recommendation for a bridge and plaza system at a public meeting Tuesday night at the WNED studios in downtown Buffalo. (That two-hour presentation will be rebroadcast on WNED/17 on Sunday at 3:00 p.m.)
The good news is that they recommended that the bridge operation move out of its present location into a new plaza slightly to the north, which would return to the community Front Park and Fort Porter.
The further good news is that the some of the engineers’ numbers are looking more realistic. Two weeks ago they said the PBA would get its bridge and plaza done by 2007; now they say it’s 2010. The engineers are also saying that the PBA’s twin-arch design at the new plaza will cost $10 million more than a cable-stayed bridge at another new plaza. Which is to say, they’ve decided that the PBA’s plan is neither faster nor cheaper.
The rest of the news is dreadful.
– After considering several bridge designs of their own devising, the engineers decided that the PBA’s companion span is the best way to go, modified so the truss on the old bridge matches the truss on the new bridge. That is, they recommend a twin span. They said that “a twin arch will provide signature-quality aesthetics,” which tells you something about their sense of signature, quality and aesthetics.
–They dismissed without any serious consideration at all the curved concrete cable-stayed bridge proposed two years ago by Bruno Freschi and T.Y. Lin. They never thought it worthwhile to talk with Freschi or Lin or to examine any of their detailed supporting documents. They refused to include in their report the single bridge design the PBA feared most of all.
—They recommend an environmental impact study for a new plaza (which at this point couldn’t possibly be avoided), but not for the bridge, thereby endorsing the PBA’s fiction that the bridge and the plaza are totally separate projects. That fiction has only one function: to let the PBA avoid submitting its plans to the close scrutiny and community involvement required by U.S. law.
It is, all in all, a very detailed and very well presented and very dreadful piece of work. The Public Consensus Review Panel, which paid for part of it, should be enraged. The Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority, which I suspect paid for a larger part of it, is no doubt delighted.
From 5:00-7:00 p.m. on Tuesday and Wednesday, March 7 and 8, the Panel will listen
to public responses to those draft recommendations. On March 10, the consultants will deliver to the Panel their revised recommendation. On March 14, the Panel will ratify or reject that recommendation and on the next day it will send its own final recommendation to the Public Bridge Authority.
The Best Public Opinion that Money Can Buy
In the weeks just before Tuesday’s consultants’ report, the Public Bridge Authority spent a huge amount of money trying to crank up public hysteria about the need to start construction immediately. The campaign was managed by the Buffalo firm of Collins & Co, which drenched the city’s TV and radio stations with commercials implying that the area would suffer great economic harm if any more time were spent analyzing data or engaging in an Environmental Impact Study or even thinking about what might be best for the community. Last week, the PBA helped organize a meeting in Fort Erie at which only friendly speakers were invited to perform. The day after the WNED presentation, they got the Buffalo Building and Construction Trades Council to put on a dog-and-pony show focusing on the need for jobs now, jobs now, jobs now.
I remember a fascinating interview Bill Moyers did in 1980 with Fritz Hippler, who had been in charge of film production for Adolf Hitler. Fritz Hippler was responsible for what is probably the most notorious hate film of all time, Der Ewige Jew (The Eternal Jew, 1940). Hippler looked back on his work with more than a little pride. The great secret of propaganda, he told Moyers, is “simplify and repeat, simplify and repeat.” All the great propagandists since have learned that lesson. Simplify and repeat. Get rid of the complicating details and say it again and again and again and after a while, if you’ve done it well enough, most people will forget there ever were complicating details or other ways to think about things.
The purpose of the current PBA public relations campaign—which began with a $100,000 media buy three weeks ago and may by now have more than doubled that—is to put pressure on the Panel, the Episcopal Church Home, the Olmsted Society, and Judge Eugene Fahey. The PBA wants all those agencies and people, each of whom has a voice in the final bridge and plaza design choice, to back off and leave them alone. For most of their history they’ve been left alone and they and their friends have done just fine that way. The current attention is new to them, and very distasteful. They don’t like us meddling in what they think is their business.
Simplify-and-repeat advertising campaigns go on all the time in politics: candidates and parties spend massive amounts of money and orchestrate events designed to give the impression that truth and God are on their side. I don’t remember ever seeing this kind of massive and relentless campaign waged by a public agency trying to influence public opinion on a public works construction project, especially while it is ostensibly taking part in an objective review of exactly that project. That suggests that the stakes are probably bigger than most of us thought. I wish I could find out how big the stakes really are and who will really make the big money out of the steel companion bridge project, but I can’t because the PBA keeps the details of its financial activities secret.
On Saturday February 26, the Public Consensus Review Panel conducted a five-hour meeting at which the consulting engineers hired to evaluate various bridge options were asked to listen. Lately, the engineers seemed to be setting their own goals for the research and the Panel wanted to remind them what this was all about. It was also an opportunity to introduce some new information and listen to the responses of the engineers to recent questions about its data and analyses.
Members of the Consensus panel spoke, as did representatives from the city of Buffalo, the Olmsted Society, and the Episcopal Church Home. The engineers responded and talked about their own concerns. Mostly, it seemed, they wanted to focus on cost, and nearly everyone else wanted to focus on the human consequences of various bridge and plaza designs. The only member of the panel who consistently pushed for giving cost priority was Natalie Harder, the representative of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, which has long been the only community organization to endorse the steel companion span.
(I have often faulted the Buffalo Niagara Partnership for its uncivic posture in the Peace Bridge affair, but now I wonder if it isn’t a little unfair of me to expect from it a measure of civic concern and responsibility it doesn’t claim for itself. The Buffalo Niagara Partnership isn’t a community service organization; its purpose is to help its members make money. That mission is expressed unambiguously in a box next to Partnership President Andrew Rudnick’s message in the 1998 membership directory: “Like other employer organizations, the Partnership represents the private sector and advances the ‘bottom line’ interest of its members.”)
If you made cost and quick profits the primary desiderata and you accepted the numbers the engineers were offering, then you probably had to accept the notion that the companion span was the only way to go. But attorney Joe Crangle, former chairman of the Erie County Democratic party, gave what I thought a reasonable response to Harder’s plaint: “Let us come out of this with a plan that makes sense economically and environmentally and let other decision-makers find the money.” Jim Kane, Senator Moynihan’s representative on the panel, suggested that the whole discussion about cost was compromised and distorted by the PBA’s refusal to accept “funds for this particular project allocated by the federal government.”
The engineers took many of the Buffalo concerns to heart. In their presentation Tuesday night, they gave far more attention to social issues and far less attention to dollars than in the past. Even so, they managed to deliver the PBA’s agenda.
I have difficulty trusting a lot of the numbers offered as evidence by the consulting engineers. The most obvious weirdness this week had to do with bridge maintenance.
The PBA says it currently spends about $4 million a year on maintenance for its two plazas and one bridge. Bridge General Manager Earl Rowe phoned the Larry Hunter show in December and said they were spending $400,000 to $500,000 on maintaining the bridge alone (that leaves $3.5 million per year spent on the two plazas, a huge amount of money). Rowe said the half-million dollars didn’t include major paintjobs because those were so expensive they were capitalized and tucked in another part of their financial statements.
The consulting engineers seem totally unaware of any of that. They project the 75-year maintenance costs for the companion bridges with twin arches at $11.3 million. That comes out to $75,333 per year per bridge, and in that amount they include the 15-year paintjobs the PBA excludes from its maintenance budget. They’re off by a factor of 660%—without paint.
What this tells us is, the engineers didn’t even look at what is really going on at this bridge at this time. They pulled their numbers from some abstract industry standard or they made them up on the fly. If the engineers didn’t check obvious numbers like these, how can we trust their projections into the future on things that are only imagined?
Who’s Paying for What?
Panel member Brenda McDuffie, of the Buffalo Urban League, tried to get Roger Dorton, who works for Buckland & Taylor, one of the Canadian engineering consultants, to understand that a whole range of community values were important in the discussion. He kept going back to a short list someone developed seven months ago. McDuffie explained that the Panel had learned a great deal in all this time and had expanded and rearranged that initial list of topics considerably.
Dorton was resistant and seemed far more angry than her comments warranted. McDuffie suggested that the choice of topics should rest with the Panel, since they had hired the consultants. “You work for us,” she said.
Dorton’s face got redder and he told McDuffie in a sharp voice, “I don’t work for YOU! We have a partnership here!” Ah, yes, something most of us had forgotten because of all those documents with “Bi-national Team” in big letters across the bottom: Dorton and the other Canadian engineers don’t work for the Public Consensus Review Panel. They were hired and are being paid by the Public Bridge Authority. The report the Public Consensus Review Panel will judge after next week’s public hearings are being provided by a group of American engineers hired to explore all the options and a much larger group of Canadian engineers hired by an organization that wants to destroy all the options but one. The PBA has refused to sit at the table and discuss any of these issues but perhaps it has figured out a way to trump people willing to speak openly.
Most of the Saturday events were watched in silence by Bridge managers Earl Rowe and Stephen Mayer. They were bracketed by two press agents and by their attorney, Arnold Gardner. Rowe spoke only once, late in the day and in answer to a question. The other four never spoke to the room at all, though they exchanged comments amongst themselves all morning and afternoon.
The Canadian position has been constant from the beginning of this: stonewall, stonewall, stonewall. They have refused to participate, they have refused to talk, they have refused to share. All they have done is issue ultimata. From their point of view that makes sense–Fort Erie is a town largely supported by the Bridge, so the more bridge activity the better, even unnecessary maintenance work occasioned by sticking with an anachronistic technology. Officials and business executives in more distant parts of Canada don’t care about quality of life in Fort Erie and surely not in Buffalo; they care only about their profits from truck traffic. As far as they’re concerned, Buffalo is a bottleneck for their trucks, nothing more.
Judy Fischer, a member of the Erie County Legislature, pointed out that over the years Buffalo has given up a great deal for this bridge and the Canadians have given up nothing. We’ve lost a landmark park and endured a huge amount of pollution from trucks idling at the plaza (asthma rates are much higher in that area than anywhere else on the West Side) and the town of Fort Erie has gotten jobs. The Canadians have a lot of demands, all designed so they can make money out of American markets, but they offer nothing in return. Not one Canadian official has agreed to take part in the panel. Only one has deigned to visit, Wayne Redekop, mayor of Fort Erie, and he basically said they would consider nothing but the PBA plan.
Joe Crangle said, “We hear about this economic benefit from this Peace Bridge international crossing. And it undoubtedly is true. But true to whom? True to the 300,000 people of Buffalo? I wonder. I really wonder.. . . We don’t mind being the funnel, we don’t mind being the catalyst for this, but hell, we deserve something more than just a twin span and 17 acres of plaza and no guarantee how it’s going to benefit the people of this city.“ Panel member Andres Garcia, who represents the West Side Hispanic Community, said, “NAFTA is doing nothing for people walking down Niagara Street.”
As we’ve pointed out here before, there’s been no evidence offered that all this increase in truck traffic will do this area the least bit of good. It will provide more jobs at the Peace Bridge and maybe a few more brokerage houses will open up, but that will be more than offset by damage to the infrastructure and air and noise pollution. They have consistently made claims that the trucks will benefit us and have consistently refused to produce any data showing how that is so. They raise the red flag of diverted truck traffic: if we don’t increase lanes here immediately then trucks will go to Detroit or Queenston. Nonsense. What trucker with a load for New York or Philadelphia is going to drive five hours out of his way and buy all that extra diesel fuel to cross at Detroit because of an extra half-hour or hour delay here? And what if a truck crossed at Queenston instead of Buffalo? The Queenston bridge now handles a million trucks a year; it could triple that with little difficulty. It’s not like the toll money is coming into the local economy. The PBA is in competition with the three Niagara Falls bridges, but the rest of us aren’t. Those are all bogus issues.
The Consultant's Compromise
The engineering consultants equated Buffalo’s desire for a plaza that did more good than harm with Fort Erie’s fondness for “Heritage aspects of existing arch bridge.” So they compromised: they gave Buffalo a decent plaza that would free up the park and they gave Fort Erie another bridge to hang out with the one it has now.
But those aren’t equivalent demands. No one in Fort Erie was carrying on about the Peace Bridge as historical object until the PBA’s twin span plan was challenged. All the attempts to have the current bridge declared an historical monument were manufactured after people in Buffalo started agitating for a better design. The Fort Erie folks have made demands, but their only presence in the process has been in that one visit to the Panel by Mayor Redekop and last week’s performance from which all opposition to the PBA plan was excluded.
The engineers’ compromise is no compromise at all. Fort Erie gives up nothing in this deal; it just gets more jobs, more people hired to paint the anachronistic steel cables. Why should Buffalo have to look at two ugly bridges to underwrite that?
The PBA is spending a fortune in an attempt to get out from under the lawsuits of the Olmstead and Episcopal Church Home. If that works, then the only thing between a twin span and us is the city of Buffalo refusing to give the PBA permits to drive construction trucks across city streets. If Olmstead and the Episcopal Church Home are out, if Judge Fahey is out, then our only hope for a decent bridge rests in Buffalo’s city hall. With all the money the PBA has to lobby and pressure, how long can the local pols hold up? The PBA started out clumsy, but of late they’ve gotten very good, and they’ve bought very expensive legal and public relations counsel. They’ve spent a lot of money trying to buy what they couldn’t get any other way.
Will the engineers stick to their disproportionate compromise in their final draft? Will the Review Panel have the backbone to recommend something more rational? Will the PBA pour more money into this, muddying the process still further? I can’t imagine any resolution in which the key players–the Public Consensus Review Panel and the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority–will both get their money’s worth out of this exhausting and bitter process.
The Public Bridge Authority promised Judge Eugene Fahey it would accept the Panel’s recommendation, but within days one member of its board told a Fort Erie reporter that accepting a recommendation and acting on it weren’t at all the same thing. The PBA’s current campaign to turn public opinion against the Panel suggests that, should the Consensus Panel issue a report different from what the engineers recommended the PBA may very well continue its pattern of avoidance, delay, misrepresentation, and denial until it has no other choice.
The Review Panel has taken the position that public examination of key facts will lead to a decent conclusion. The PBA has taken the position that you’re better off buying the conclusion you want, you’re better off with simplify and repeat, simplify and repeat. The consulting engineers seem caught in the middle. Their report Tuesday night seemed nice and neat but it isn’t; it’s a conceptual mess. It offers to return to us a beautiful park that should never have been destroyed in the first place and the price they suggest is the imposition of an ugly and costly anachronistic bridge. That may make engineering sense but it doesn’t make any other kind of sense, and that’s why the Public Consensus Review Panel will almost certainly tell them that this just isn’t good enough. It just isn’t good enough.