(This is the text published beginning in column one on page B1of the New York City late edition/final of the New York Times on April 27, 1999. The version published in the edition on sale and delivered in Buffalo was below the fold on page C28 and was considerably shorter.) 

Border War Over the Peace Bridge



Since the days of Prohibition, the Peace Bridge has been the infrastructural equivalent of a warm handshake between Canada and the United States: an economic, recreational and cultural lifeline for people on both sides of the Niagara River.

Because of the bridge, Canadians do not think twice about crossing over to Buffalo Sabres hockey games or buying winter homes in the Cattaraugus Mountains. Americans routinely hop over to Toronto for dinner, and stay in summer cottages on the Canadian side of Lake Erie.

Indeed, people here probably see the other side as less of a foreign country than, say, some Manhattanites view New Jersey or Queens.

But these days, there is anything but peace at the Peace Bridge.

The bridge, a 3,600-foot steel truss built in 1927, is past its prime, barely adequate for the traffic that has surged in recent years at the crossing, where the wait can exceed an hour and a half on summer days.

The Canadians are pushing to build a three-lane bridge next to the existing one, a mirror-image "twin span" that they say would honor history and symbolize American-Canadian friendship. The Americans, though, want to demolish the old bridge and build a six-lane structure that they envision as so impressive that they are calling it a "signature bridge."

The clash over the Peace Bridge is not just a battle of function versus form, engineering versus esthetics. It has become a political football in Ottawa and Washington, with Canadian officials accusing the Americans of Manifest Destiny arrogance, and American officials dismissing the Canadians as parochial.

"It's not an American bridge; it's an international bridge," sighed John D. Maloney, who represents the Fort Erie district in the Canadian Parliament. "The Canadian interests and desires appear to be ignored. It's very disappointing, and quite frankly, very difficult to believe that this could be happening."

To which James W. Pitts, president of Buffalo's Common Council, sniffed, "I think the problem now is that they're trying to make this an international incident, when in fact it's nothing more than sitting down rationally and trying to do something better for both sides, and create a new symbol with binational cooperation."

More than just political bickering, though, the clash has been transformed into a fight of millennial magnitude -- a fight over how to build the best bridge for, well, the 21st century.

The new bridge, quite simply, is the biggest project to come down the pike in many years, a huge public works endeavor that could cost $90 million and take more than six years.

The fear, on the Canadian side, is that diplomatic squabbling may delay other economic projects. But the hope, on the American side, is that the authorities do the right thing -- finally -- for a city and a region that have long been mired in self-doubt and economic quicksand.

"While nobody thinks that a bridge will revitalize a city, public symbols are important, especially here, because a lot of people feel beat up," said Bruce Jackson, a professor of American culture at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

The debate is now at a crucial stage. With the support of the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority, the quasi-public binational authority that operates the bridge, Canadian officials have approved all of the requisite permits to begin work on the twin-bridge proposal. All that remains is a decision by the United States Coast Guard on whether the project has any negative impact on the Niagara River.

But already, Buffalo's Mayor, Anthony M. Masiello, has threatened to sue if the Coast Guard approves the permit. And with the exception of Gov. George E. Pataki, who has sidestepped the issue, all of New York's major politicians, including Senators Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Charles E. Schumer and Attorney General Eliot L. Spitzer, have thrown their weight behind the signature bridge.

There is, however, one point of agreement: something must be done to improve the flow of traffic on the existing bridge, which resembles, with its dollar-green paint and asymmetrical truss, a scaly aquatic monster burrowing into the American side.

Encouraged in large part by the North American Free Trade Agreement, commercial traffic via the Peace Bridge has skyrocketed in recent years. In 1991, $23 billion worth of goods passed through; now, the annual figure is $40 billion to $45 billion, said Stephen F. Mayer, the bridge's operations manager on the American side.

The number of commercial trucks, meanwhile, continues to break records with as much nonchalant regularity as the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Last year, 1.381 million commercial vehicles crossed the Peace Bridge, up 62 percent from 1991.

Yet for years, truckers, commuters and vacationing motorists have complained about the lack of customs agents and immigration officials at the border, creating bottlenecks that are especially pronounced during the summer.

So in the early 1990's, the bridge authority began studying options for a new bridge.

"The approach was, 'What are the options that allow us to avoid impacts?' " said Deborah J. Chadsey, an American lawyer for the bridge authority. "Don't disrupt the lake. Don't disturb the archeologically sensitive areas. Don't move the footprint."

For a while, it seemed that the twin bridge, combined with a plan to renovate the existing one, would be a fait accompli: the authority's 10-member board of directors, comprising five Canadians and five Americans, all political appointees, unanimously approved the project, which would be financed by bonds, not taxes.

But at the latter stages of the process, particularly after the winning bid came in at $90 million, much higher than previously projected, public opinion on the American side began to shift from indifference to indignation, led by Mr. Pitts of the Common Council,

Senator Moynihan and a citizens' group of mostly young professionals in Buffalo called the New Millennium Group.

They said the bridge authority did not make the process as open as it should have been for so monumental a project. Then, as an alternative, they unveiled a concrete cable-stayed bridge, in which cables flare out from a central tower, sketched by the noted bridge designers Bruno Freschi and T. Y. Lin, that they said would be better, cheaper and faster to build than the authority's $90 million twin bridge.

If adopted, their bridge plan would restore land to a Frederick Law Olmsted park along the waterfront and help revitalize a downtown that is now a shell of its proud industrial past, said Bill Banas, 28, a software engineer who is the group's director.

Their bridge, they believe, would also help convince outsiders that the city is not just a dumping ground for blizzards and the birthplace of chicken wings, but also a culturally vibrant place with a fine natural harbor and architectural feats by Wright, Sullivan and Richardson.

It has become so personal, so emotional, an issue that some people are saying they will take their civic energy elsewhere should the twin bridge be hatched.

"If they build that ugly, mismatched companion bridge, we're going to spend the next 100 years apologizing for it," said Jeff Belt, 36, an entrepreneur who lived and worked all over the world before returning last year to Buffalo, his hometown. "That's why so many of us say, if this thing comes to pass, we're going to leave. We're not going to bear with the heartbreak, again."

The bridge authority itself was until recently a relatively anonymous entity best known for collecting tolls ($2 for cars; an average of $10 to $12 per truck) and plotting small-bore projects (repaving the bridge; repainting the bridge).

In an interview, bridge authorities vigorously defended the twin structure, saying they had studied about a dozen options, catalogued all the environmental permutations and spent more than $10 million in the process.

Their mandate, they said repeatedly, was to collect tolls as efficiently as possible to compete with the top border crossing, Detroit and Windsor, Ontario. It was, Mr. Mayer said, asking perhaps just a tad too much of the authority to "hang the economic rejuvenation and renaissance of Buffalo on the appearance of this bridge."

Or, as Roderick H. McDowell, a Canadian board member and a lawyer, framed it: "We're responsible for assuring a safe, economical conduit of public transportation. Cinderella's castle won't work here."

But even on the bridge authority, there are signs of strain. In a recent vote on whether to delay the project for further study, the tally was a 5-to-5 split along national lines, with the Americans saying yes to the delay and the Canadians saying no.

There are few signs that the issue will fade any time soon. In Fort Erie, almost every person interviewed seemed to be reading from the same script, saying that it was most important to "get on with it," that their American counterparts were acting selfishly.

The twin bridge, the Canadians added, could be built more quickly, pumping life into Fort Erie's sagging economy and attracting more

Americans to a planned casino at the Fort Erie race track. It would also preserve a beloved symbol.

"The Peace Bridge in Fort Erie is significant because many of us grew up in the shadow of the bridge," said Wayne H. Redekop, the Mayor of Fort Erie, population 28,000. "For many of the people in Buffalo, the Peace Bridge has no real emotional connotation. For them to suggest, 'Well, just tear it down,' doesn't respond to the sensitivities on this side of Buffalo. For them, Fort Erie is an afterthought."

In Buffalo, meanwhile, almost every person interviewed endorsed the signature bridge. Some even pulled out postcards printed from the New Millennium Group's Web site -- with its striking computer-generated image of Tampa's Sunshine Skyway Bridge superimposed over the Buffalo skyline -- as a possible vision of the future.

But the fact that Canadians are not seeing things their way remains a source of bewilderment and bitterness.

"When people are frustrated, they look for a bad guy," said Mr. Jackson of the University of Buffalo, speaking, of course, about the American perspective. "So all of a sudden, Canada became the bad guy to people."

Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company