(Artvoice 6 May 1999)
 
 

The Peace Bridge War: 

Shifting Constituencies,
The Naughty News,
and the Cruise Missile Option

by Bruce Jackson

Three big Peace Bridge stories broke in the past week: the Coast Guard approved the permit request from the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority, Congressman John LaFalce has been lobbying the Coast Guard on behalf of twin bridge proponents, and Governor George Pataki announced that he and the five American members of the PBA were now strong supporters of the signature bridge. The Buffalo News gave major play to the first, all but ignored the second, and fragmented and hid the third, which was the most important of the three.
 

Buried Dynamite
Governor Pataki's surprise endorsement of the signature span and his report of companion endorsement by the five American members of the Public Bridge Administration appeared in the Buffalo News on Friday, April 30. It was broken into three parts tucked into a Douglas Turner article on page A-8 titled "Coast Guard dropped options to twin span as too sketchy." Turner's political pieces are usually given far better placement and nothing in the title or any subhead would have given a reader any idea of the dynamite buried there. You don't get to Pataki's surprise until you're five paragraphs into the Coast Guard story:

Gov. Pataki criticized the authority proposal as "just a functional bridge." He told a Georgetown University audience that a signature bridge is a better investment.
This was, so far as I know, the first time Governor Pataki has publicly expressed any opinion at all about the signature bridge. The News article returned, without comment, to the Coast Guard story, then, five paragraphs further on and as a total non sequitur, told us that:
Pataki said the twin span has "no architectural or cultural value at all" and gave his strongest endorsement yet to the signature bridge.

"The five U.S. authority commissioners," Pataki said, "have concluded let's build a signature bridge, something that adds some character to the entrance to Western New York and the northern regions of America.

"Quite simply I think that this is a great idea. I think that when you are going to make this investment that is going to last not just for decades, but for generations, let's do it right. The Americans have taken that position. The Canadians have not. So there we have an impasse.

"'Maybe when the situation in the Balkans calms down, we can send (U.S. Ambassador) Richard Holbrooke up to Canada to see if he can broker an agreement."

Astonishing stuff: not only is the Governor is in favor of a signature bridge, but so are all five American delegates to the Public Bridge Commission. (On Monday of this week three of those American commissioners once again endorsed the twin span, contradicting the governor responsible for their appointments.)

After two more paragraphs about the Coast Guard, the article again returned to the Governor:

Pataki on Thursday visited Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y. at his Washington apartment. Moynihan, whose September, 1997, speech in behalf of a "great bridge" started the controversy over bridge design, is recovering from back surgery.
The remaining five paragraphs say nothing more about Pataki or his unexpected endorsement of the signature bridge at a university four hundred miles from home, or his visit with the senator the News credits with starting it all.

Anyone familiar with the issues, politics, and players in the Peace Bridge saga knows that the Governor's strong endorsement of the signature bridge and his report that the American board members agreed with him, is major news. Why did the Buffalo News fragment the story and bury it in an article innocuously parked on page A-8? Why were there no followup articles or commentaries on Saturday, Sunday or Monday? Why did the News run as its front page Peace Bridge story that day a bunch of anecdotes of far less importance?

The Page One Unimportant Story
That anecdotal page one story in Friday's News was about reactions to Wednesday's Coast Guard announcement that it had given the PBA a permit to begin construction on the companion span even though there were as yet no clear plans for a plaza and the PBA had not done the environmental impact statement usually required in such complex projects. Most of the article was comments from various Buffalo and Fort Erie political figures.

The only American in the article who applauded the Coast Guard decision was Andrew J. Rudnick, president and CEO of the Greater Buffalo Partnership (né Chamber of Commerce) who said, "Every day that our community continues the divisive rhetoric and threats that recently have surrounded the Peace Bridge expansion issue is another day that our community suffers." Profound thoughts eloquently expressed. Rudnick said nothing about how long we'd suffer if we got the ugly twin span and had to look at it year after year.

What's with him and the Greater Buffalo Partnership? Every business owner I've talked to says Let's build the signature span, it's better for the region in all conceivable ways. Who is Rudnick really speaking for? Are the moguls (who have been silent on this major public policy issue) pushing the Partnership in some other direction for reasons Rudnick won't or isn't allowed to talk about? Is there some powerful drummer who plays only for him and whom only he hears? I doubt that Rudnick is following orders from his long-time patron Bob Wilmers, who I'm told has worked very hard on the city's behalf. I can't imagine Bob Wilmers pushing Andy Rudnick to endorse an ugly bridge for Buffalo. It's equally unlikely that Wilmers' old friend and Buffalo News owner Warren Buffet gives a hoot what kind of bridge goes up here. So who is pushing Rudnick's buttons?

Three Canadians, Encore
The story also said that the Canadian Minister of Transport had reappointed three twin-span hardliners to new five-year terms on the Bridge Authority: John Lopkinski (current PBA chairman), Roderick H. "Roddy" McDowell, and Dr. Patricia K. Neal.

I didn't know anything about the PBA's Roddy McDowell until I read David Chen's article on our Peace Bridge fiasco in the April 27 New York Times. Chen quoted McDowell as saying we shouldn't have a signature bridge because "Cinderella's castle won't work here." I had to read that line twice. I can't understand why the Canadian Minister of Transport would reappoint to so important a position someone who can't differentiate between a castle and a shoe.

(McDowell's malapropism didn't appear in the national edition of the Times, which is the one sold and delivered in Buffalo, but it did appear, along with a good deal of other additional material, in the edition distributed in New York City. That version was also more prominently-positioned: our version was on page C18, after the stock market numbers and below the fold; the city edition version was the first three columns across the top left of page B1. Major placement for a major story. If you're interested, you can find the city edition text by clicking here.)

Since Lopkinski, McDowell, and Neal continue to reject all requests to consider alternatives--not just to build an alternative, but also to talk about the possibility--we should read these reappointments as an indication that the Canadian government is telling us to fuck off. I've heard that whatever personal opinions the three harbor, they've all been told by Ottawa to be recalcitrant and to take the heat for the national government, which is absolutely opposed to a signature span between Buffalo and Fort Erie and which does not want to come out and say so. More on this below.

The Editorial Waffle
There was more journalistic weirdness in the following day's Buffalo News (Saturday May 1). The lead editorial, echoing last week's Artvoice, said Canadians and Americans should begin talking rather than posturing. The editorial at first seemed to argue for the signature span, or at least give it serious consideration, but then it went on to suggest that proponents of the signature span should do nothing that would upset anyone anywhere. They certainly shouldn't file lawsuits that might slow down the construction process and get people on the other side angry. A beautiful bridge would be nice, the News seemed to say, but if the Canadians won't agree to it, signature bridge proponents should roll over and take wherever the Canadians are shoving wherever they're shoving it.

Keep in mind that last August, News editorial page editor Gerald I. Goldberg said "We had an editorial board meeting and decided that the bridge is a dead issue." I can't remember a single editorial in the News advocating the signature bridge. Immediately after signature bridge advocate Elliot Spitzer replaced Dennis Vacco as New York attorney general, the News ran a lead editorial urging him to keep steel-magnate, major Republican party contributor, and twin-span advocate Brian Lipke on the PBA. Instead of urging Spitzer to give that seat to a deputy attorney general who was sworn to represent the peoples' interests, as had been the tradition before Dennis Vacco, there was the News urging him to give the job to the owner of a steel mill.

The only contributor to the News editorial page who has consistently pointed to the PBA's obstinacy and wrong-headedness is political cartoonist Tom Toles. When Warren Buffet and the News drove the Courier-Express out of business in 1982, thereby making Buffalo a one-paper town, the loss I regretted most was Tom Toles, who was then drawing for the Courier-Express. Happily, the News dumped its dull editorial cartoonist and hired Toles, which some of us thought meant the News, now that it had total journalistic power, was going to take a far more acute look at social issues in the community. That never happened, but, to its credit, the News kept Toles and gave him freedom to draw, even though his drawings were frequently in clear opposition to the editorials on the same page.The old Buffalo Evening News won two Pulitzer Prizes: Bruce M. Shanks for editorial cartooning in 1958, and Edgar May for local reporting in 1961. I guess everybody knows that the only Pulitzer Prize ever won by the Buffalo News went to Tom Toles in 1990 for his editorial cartoons.

A Congressman and his Constituents
Proponents of the signature bridge were disappointed but not really surprised about the Coast Guard approval of the PBA permit request. Some people think that the Coast Guard made a partial concession to Senators Moynihan and Schumer by sitting on the announcement for a month after it was ready, thereby giving signature bridge supporters like the vigorous New Millennium Group more time to develop opposition to the twin span.

The Buffalo News said on Thursday that Congressman John LaFalce had been informed of the Coast Guard ruling and he hoped for a cooling-off period. The bridge lands in his district (which runs from Buffalo's west side all the way over to Rochester), so it's reasonable he'd be informed of the decision and that he'd have an opinion about it. But the News article said nothing about LaFalce's direct involvement in the process or that he had been working in direct opposition to his two Washington colleagues, Senators Moynihan and Schumer, as well as Attorney General Spitzer, the Common Council, the mayor, this region's delegates to Albany, and what seems to be the great majority of voters in this part of his district. LaFalce had written Secretary of Transportation Rodney Slater in March about the Peace Bridge, but unlike Senators Moynihan and Schumer, LaFalce wouldn't make his letter public. He also refused to have press conferences to discuss the issue or give reasons for opposing the two senators from his own state and party.

Word is that LaFalce very much wants to be named U.S. ambassador to Canada in two years, should the Democrats get the White House again, so he's doing everything he can to keep cozy with his friends across the border. They want a dull bridge here, he'll help them get a dull bridge here. They want no complications here, he'll do what he can to kill complications here. That's what a Congressman does, represent his constituents, right? I guess the problem sometimes is remembering who one's constituents are.

Gossip like that shouldn't go unchecked, so I called his office early last Thursday morning and said Artvoice wanted to interview him about his position on the Peace Bridge and the report of him secretly lobbying against the two senators and almost everyone else this side of the river. The woman who answered the phone said I'd have to talk to a Mary Brennan-Taylor, who wasn't in yet but who would return my call shortly.

She didn't.

I was in the Federal building in the early afternoon, so I stopped by Congressman LaFalce's office, identified myself and said I'd like to make an appointment to interview him. The receptionist was snippy. "I talked to you this morning," she said, "and I told you that Mary Brennan-Taylor would return your call."

"She didn't return my call," I said. The woman said that Mary Brennan-Taylor was out to lunch and that she would return my call when she got back, and if she didn't, well, then I could call her back again. Mary Brennan-Taylor didn't call in the afternoon, nor did anyone else from Congressman LaFalce's office, so late in the day I called again. I identified myself to the woman who answered and said I was calling back. She then told me that she wasn't the woman I'd talked to the other two times and she didn't know what I was talking about. I told her that Artvoice wanted to interview Congressman LaFalce about his position on the Peace Bridge.

She said I'd have to talk to Mary Brennan-Taylor about that and Mary wasn't there, she'd just left. I said, "Oh, really?" Maybe there was something in my voice: she said she'd try to catch her. She came back and said, "Mary got caught by another phone call but she put her hand over the mouthpiece and said she'd faxed the Washington office and would get back to you."

That was last Thursday afternoon. It's Tuesday now and I've heard nothing. Six days and I still haven't even been able to talk to the lady to whom you have to talk to make an appointment to talk to the congressman.

Canada and the Cruise Missile Option
There are two interesting hypotheses making the rounds, both having to do with why the Canadian government opposes a signature bridge between Buffalo and Fort Erie. I've made no more headway verifying or disproving them than I have connecting with Congressman LaFalce or finding out about his ambassadorial ambitions.

One has it that the reason the Canadian government insists on a bland bridge here is it doesn't want anything to distract or deflect tourists from the huge Canadian development around the Casino Niagara project. The casino is a cash cow (mostly American cash), it's expanding, and hotel space in Niagara Falls is expanding accordingly. Why put a gorgeous structure in the Buffalo area that might encourage visitors to spend part of their time away from the Niagara Falls tables and slots and sleeping rooms?

I asked Canadian Consul General Mark Romoff about this and he said there was nothing to it because the casino operation was inconsequential compared to the value of goods crossing the bridge every day. At the time that seemed reasonable enough, but later it occurred to me that the two issues have no connection with one another. Truck traffic is unaffected by bridge aesthetics; it is dependent only on bridge access. The hundred million dollars worth of goods trucked across the Peace Bridge every day have nothing to do with the millions of dollars lost by Americans at Casino Niagara. Canada can be equally interested in smooth truck flow and making sure as many people as possible leave their US dollars at the government-owned casino in Niagara Falls.

A savvy lawyer friend I call Deep Boat thinks things aren't so simple. "I'd think they'd want the signature bridge because everything that draws people to this area will increase the number of people who visit the casino. People will come to Buffalo to see the signature bridge and then they'll drive twenty minutes on the Canadian side into Niagara Falls. The Canadians have to have some other reason for wanting to kill the signature bridge. The question is, What?"

Then Deep Boat answered his own question: "Ottawa is fully aware that the Freschi-Lin bridge would be cheaper and faster, but I bet the politicians are more worried about performance lawsuits from firms with which the PBA has signed contracts or to which the PBA has made documented promises than they are about how long it will take to finish this thing or what it looks like." If the twin span is built as planned, Deep Boat said, it will be financed completely out of bonds paid back out of ordinary bridge revenues. If there is a shift to the signature bridge, there may be nonperformance lawsuits that will result in huge attorneys' fees and large default penalties, which the Canadian government will have to pay. "The Canadian government doesn't want to put a penny into a bridge in Fort Erie. They'll put money into Niagara Falls, which promises a fabulous return on investment, but as far as Ottawa is concerned Fort Erie is just a truck port, it is a place that should be producing money, not costing money." Prettiness or ugliness are equally irrelevant, he said, all that matters is that the trucks can come and go and that the bridge makes money.

The New York Times said last week that we're engaged in a border war. They're right. It's quiet, very few people know it's going on or what the terms or targets are, but we are having a border war. Given that condition, I suggest we do what we nearly always do when we want to end a war: ship a lot of money to the other side to prove we're really friends now. If we do that, maybe our good friends the Canadians won't be so fretful about losing money to plaintiffs in nonperformance lawsuits and maybe they'll forget whatever else is bothering them that we don't know about, and maybe they'll tell their five representatives on the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority that it's now in the national interest to behave rationally and reasonably. It's worth a try. For not much more than a few cruise missiles ($2 million) and way way less than a B-2 bomber ($2 billion) we can settle the only border war in this entire region since the Americans and British torched Fort Erie and Buffalo in the war the Peace Bridge was built and named to commemorate.
 

copyright 1999 Bruce Jackson

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