(Artvoice 31 July 1999)

Peace Bridge Chronicles
Trucks, Talk, and Sunshine

by Bruce Jackson

The Ontario provincial government Transportation Ministry has been floating trial balloons about a new hundred-kilometer eight-lane highway they'd like to build between Hamilton and Fort Erie. The QEW can't handle the present traffic, let alone the huge increase expected when the new Peace Bridge is finally operational, and it can't be widened to eight lanes because the farmland and commercial areas through which it passes are too valuable. They've got to build something new.

What does that mean for our side of the river? If there are eight lanes of new Canadian highway spilling into six lanes of the new Peace Bridge and that in turn empties into four lanes of our old Thruway--ouch! It doesn't take a physicist to know that the flow through any system is determined by the narrowest stricture. Anyone who's ever had a clogged sink has learned that lesson. When the new bridge is built, we'll either have a new mess along the 190, or that road will have to be expanded to help those trucks on their way out of town. All the griping you're hearing now about the inadequacy of the current Peace Bridge will be doubled when the new one backs up because there's nowhere for that increased truck traffic to go.

To avoid having to participate in an Environmental Impact Study, the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority pretended that the new bridge project and the new American plaza project were totally separate from one another. I don't know if there's equivalent deception going on here, or if it's just that no one involved is doing any long-term thinking, but it's foolish of the planners and politicians to deal with this bridge expansion as if it's just a matter of widening an old bridge to fit current needs. And it's naive of us to think that once we decide whether to go with the ugly and expensive companion span or the beautiful and economical signature span we'll be free of problems with the Peace Bridge. It's a mess now and, however the design issue is resolved, it's going to be a mess for decades to come.

Those questions are of no interest to David Colinette, the Canadian Minister of Transport, or of his five hand-picked representatives on the PBA. The Canadian Minister of Transport is concerned about facilitating the exchange of goods made possible by NAFTA, he is concerned about those trucks; Buffalo isn't even a blip on his screen.

He may be aware of Fort Erie, but Fort Erie has everything to gain and nothing to lose by expanded truck traffic. Their highway design is such that the trucks are out of town in minutes, and they go near the beautiful water only at the truck plaza itself. Increased truck traffic will only mean more customs and immigration jobs for Fort Erie area residents. Remember a few months ago when Fort Erie Mayor Wayne Redikop said that it might be a good idea not to fix the bridge at all, just increase the numbers of customs inspectors to improve traffic flow and leave leave other things exactly as they were, and that if the truckers didn't like that they could just cross the border somewhere else? He didn't mean that for a minute: it was a hissy-fit, it was political posturing, nothing more.

There's no way in the world Fort Erie is going to let that truck traffic go somewhere else. Without that truck traffic Fort Erie's economy would implode. If all those customs and immigration jobs went, if all those brokerage houses moved elsewhere, if that huge 24-hour duty-free shop was doing half the business, Fort Erie's economy would rest on the gooch joints, bingo parlors, Chinese restaurants, and rich Americans picking up groceries on their way to their summer houses. Look at Fort Erie's gorgeous new civic center. What other town the size of Fort Erie on either side of the border has a civic center like that? You know where they got the money for it? The Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority paid for it. Of course Fort Erie loves those trucks and the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority.

But should we? Are there substantial benefits to this city and this area from a huge increase in truck traffic? If the truck traffic hurts us, we ought to know; if it helps us, we ought to know that too. The PBA and the Greater Buffalo Partnership have long asserted that the trucks passing through Buffalo are good for us. Are they?

Maybe we'll get some answers to those and similar questions during the first round of hearings conducted by the Public Consensus Review Panel that begin next Wednesday and Thursday, August 4 and 5. The Panel is chaired by Sister Denis Roche (president of D'Youville College) and Randolph Marks (Buffalo businessman). During this round, proponents of various Peace Bridge and American plaza designs will have a chance to tell us all what is on their minds. The hearings, which are open to the public, will take place at WNED-TV, 17 Lower Terrace, Buffalo; they will be aired lived by WNED (970 on the AM dial). The Wednesday sessions will run from two to ten p.m., the Thursday session from five to nine p.m.

The panel is funded by the City of Buffalo, County of Erie, Margaret L. Wendt Foundation, and the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo. The project manager is David Carter, of Toronto. I'm not sure why they felt the need to hire someone from 90 miles away to run the project, unless it was to make sure that there was at least one Canadian involved in the enterprise: there are no representatives from Fort Erie or any other Canadians government agency on the large panel that will be listening to the presentations, and neither are there any members of the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority. They were invited to be on the Panel but they all refused to participate. The Canadians didn't want to participate because they're not interested; the Public Bridge Authority didn't want to participate unless they were certain that at the end of the process the Panel would come out for their companion span.

The two-day schedule allows for six invited presenters, each getting forty minutes to talk and twenty minutes to field questions, and dozens of five-minute slots for anyone else who has an opinion or an idea. The invited presenters are the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority, signature span advocates Bruno Freschi and T.Y. Lin, SuperSpan proposers Jack Cullen and Clint Brown, the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, UB civil engineering professor John Mander (whose students two years ago came up with three companion span designs and three signature span designs, all of them, according to Mander, better than anything the PBA and its consultants have shown us), and Bob Biniszkiewicsz, who has some alternative plaza ideas.

When we went to press, the PBA still hadn't accepted the invitation to present its position at the public hearing, presumably for the same reason it didn't appoint a representative to the Panel: if they can't be sure of the outcome, they have no interest in participating. The space on the program is still saved for them, should they want to venture forth from their bunker down at Peace Bridge Plaza.

The Panel has also given the PBA's chief spokesman, Andrew Rudnick of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, a full hour for a presentation, even though the Partnership has no bridge or plaza plan of its own, as do the other five invited presenters. That really means the Public Bridge Authority is getting a free ride: Rudnick comes in and presents their side of the case, but they don't have to face the public and defend it. I asked David Carter why the Partnership got to have a full hour and a the New Millennium Group (which has gathered impressive and reliable data about the impact on the community of the two bridge designs) got nothing. Carter answered that the New Millennium Group had a representative represented on the Panel. That was disingenuous: the Partnership has a representative on the Panel and it's getting the full hour as well. Why should Andrew Rudnick get two bites of the apple? It would make more sense to combine his presentation with the PBA's since there's not a bit of daylight between their positions. And that way we'll know in advance that the hour won't be wasted.

Someone told me that the schedule was set up this way so the Public Bridge Authority wouldn't feel the deck was stacked against them. They've got one-third of the prime presentation time. One third of the time for a single point of view. That seems more than fair. From here, it seems as if the Panel bent over backwards to make it possible for the PBA to join the conversation. If the PBA wanted to join the conversation. Which it doesn't.

The Consensus Review Panel is conducting itself exactly as responsible community members should before the community undertakes a major project with long-term consequences: it's listening to proponents, consulting experts, inviting community input and response, all those good things. But there's an Alice-in-Wonderland quality to the whole enterprise: none of what they do has any no meaning unless the Public Bridge Authority decides to listen. If the PBA keeps the cotton in its ears, then the Panel is just talking to itself. The Panel has no legal authority of any kind, its power is grounded entirely in the concept of goodwill.

Some Panel members say that they hope the PBA will listen to what goes on and, in the name of goodwill, take account of the concerns of the people. Nothing the PBA has done thus far has indicated any such willingness to listen or interest in goodwill. And nothing the Canadian government has done thus far has shown any interest in our area, save as a conduit for Canadian trucks. As long as the PBA stonewalls and there's no participation from Minister of Transport David Colinette or any other Canadian officials, this is going to be fought out in the courts. We may learn a good deal from the Panel hearings, and what we learn may help us next time something like this comes along, but for now, the courts are our only hope for getting the PBA to behave responsibly. The courts are a lousy place to work out public policy, but the Canadians and the PBA have left us no other choice.

It's time for serious reevaluation of the composition and function of the PBA. They dance only to private industrial and Canadian government drums and that isn't right. The PBA is an international agency, but other than Barbra Kavenaugh I can't think of one board member who represents public interests on this side of the river.

Peace Bridge construction is almost certainly on hold for a year: the lawsuits aren't going to be resolved in time for construction to start before winter. If the PBA doesn't start construction before December 31, its permit from the International Joint Commission expires and they may have to go through that part of the process all over again. It's noisy out there, but in all likelihood we're going to get a breather.

We just can't continue letting political appointees and businessmen continue making lousy shortsighted plans for us, plans that leave us playing desperate catch-up, as the Public Consensus Review Panel is doing now. We've got to get in front of it. Perhaps one way is a real regional planning agency involving governments and citizen's groups on both sides of the river. If the Canadians won't join us in looking at these long-term problems then we should start the examination ourselves and they can join us later. We can't force them to sit at any communal table but at some point they'll have no choice--like when they want to talk to us about widening route 190 so those trucks will move sweetly on their way to distant markets.

You can attend meetings of the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority. Call their office (884-6744) and someone will give you the time and date of the next meeting. And you can read the minutes of any meeting you didn't attend: go to their office at Peace Bridge Plaza and tell the secretary what minutes you'd like to see. There's only one problem: whenever they talk about the issues we're concerned with here, they go into executive session. They didn't do that in the old days, but that do that now. If you're an observer and they go into executive session they'll all sit there quietly until you're out of there and the door has closed behind you. That's when they do their serious business. If you look at the minutes of that meeting you'll find nothing but an entry telling you they went into and came out of executive session.

The PBA was created in the Depression to bail out investors in the Peace Bridge. Those investors were saved decades ago; that problem has been taken care of. No reason we should have to be stuck with this relic from another political era. Community advocates and younger politicians, such as Kevin Gaughan and Sam Hoyt, have called for a reconfiguration or total abolition of the PBA and a new way of distributing of its huge profits. They're right: we should not have to suffer decisions about public works made by owners of steel mills who get to make such decisions solely because they are major contributors to the Republican party.

We can't do anything about what happens on the other side of the river--if the Canadian Minister of Transport wants to ignore Buffalo and this region and focus only trucks, that's his decision--but we should at least have people on our side who represent our interests, and we should have a structure that lets us have a voice in what goes on. It would be good for all of us if the Canadians were willing to join us in serious conversation about such matters, but if they refuse, that's their choice and we needn't be immobilized by it.

Decisions of this importance shouldn't be discussed and made behind closed doors and shuttered windows. The whole process should be public. They concern the public and the public shouldn't be banished from the discussions. The City of Buffalo, the County of Erie, the Community Foundation and the Wendt Foundation did a fine thing in setting up the Public Consensus Review Panel, but it's a scandal and a shame that they were forced to do it. The Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority should have done it. They could have done it if they wanted us to know what they were doing and why. They didn't. It's time for a change. It's time to let the sunshine in.

I got a call last week from a friend of Andrew Rudnick, President and CEO of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership. The caller said that Andrew Rudnick is personally hurt that we think there is anything wrong with his advocacy of the twin span and he'd like us to stop saying there is. The caller said that Andrew Rudnick had no personal position at all on the issue, that he was only representing the wishes of the membership of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership.

The caller was someone I've known for many years, so I told him that what he said seemed to me totally absurd. Rudnick has been an effective advocate of the companion span for more than two years and, more important, Artvoice's survey of the entire Buffalo Niagara Partnership membership directory indicates the membership overwhelmingly favors the Freschi-Lin signature span. A miserly 22% of the membership favored the twin span. My caller said that Rudnick felt he wasn't being represented fairly, whatever the facts were.

Artvoice wants to make things right and so do I, and we certainly want to give all quarters on this key community issue the opportunity to tell our readers what they think and what they know and why they've taken the positions they have. If Andrew Rudnick would like to write an article or note for Artvoice about why he wants the twin span and why he believes the majority of the membership of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership want the companion span, we will be print it.

copyright 1999 Bruce Jackson

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