(Artvoice April 15, 1999)

The Other Side of the Bridge

by Bruce Jackson

Stalemate at the Border
The Canadian government Wednesday issued construction permits so the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Administration could go ahead with its plans to build a companion span for the decrepit Peace Bridge now in place. That's more symbolic than functional because everything is on hold until the US Coast Guard decides whether or not it will issue the parallel US permits. If the Coast Guard declines, it will be to force the environmental impact study the PBA tried to sidestep by separating the bridge and plaza construction projects. If the Coast Guard issues the permits, there may be lawsuits and other legal action from citizens' groups and even the city of Buffalo.

US Senators Moynihan and Schumer, New York Attorney General Spitzer, the Buffalo Common Council, and most Western New York delegates to the state legislature and assembly have asked the Coast Guard to refuse to issue the construction permits. The Common Council voted to interfere with construction should those permits be issued, and Mayor Masiello, after months of fence-straddling and waffling, decided to endorse its actions. In the last few months, what had been scattered mumblings of dissatisfaction with the twin span design commissioned by the PBA has developed into a firestorm of public activity on this side of the border.

But not on the Canadian side. Ask people in Fort Erie whether they prefer a gorgeous signature bridge or a duplication of the current bridge and almost everyone says they prefer the signature bridge, of course, who wouldn't? That's where it stops. There is no agitation, no apparent public concern, no questioning of the five Fort Erie and Port Colborne residents who are Canada's appointees to the ten-person PBA. Most Canadians I've talked to seem to have the idea that a pretty bridge would be nice, but the issue didn't really concern them because it was a governmental matter.

The Canadian Position
That is the position the Canadian government has taken as well. According to Consul-General Mark Romoff, the "stakeholders" in the bridge question only marginally include people who live close to the border. The people who really matter are the people scattered across eastern Canada and the United States who make, distribute, buy and sell the hundred-million dollars' worth of goods that cross the Peace Bridge every day. For those distant buyers and sellers, the primary concern is velocity: they want a bridge that will let them move their goods as quickly as possible. It's not that they're opposed to aesthetic questions; rather it's that they just don't care about them because they live and work nowhere near where our aesthetic issues come into play. There is no difference to them if the bridge that provides the traffic lanes they need is gorgeous or ugly.

The official Canadian position, in that regard, is identical to the position advocated by Andrew Rudnick, president and CEO of the Greater Buffalo Partnership: the important stakeholders are everyone but the people who live here and have to look at the thing. Money is all that matters.

John D. Maloney, Canadian member of parliament from Erie-Lincoln, issued a statement on April 7 announcing that even arguing over Peace Bridge design was unacceptable. Not that one side or the other was wrong, but wrangling itself was improper. "The original decision must be respected by all concerned," he wrote. "I am deeply disturbed by the last minute intervention and intimidation for no compelling, supportable or valid reason by political elements in Washington, Albany, and Western New York." I assume by "political elements" he means everyone who has expressed an interest in the affair.

"Let no one lose sight that this is not just a Buffalo concern. It is a national and international issue that impacts industry and commerce throughout Western New York and the entire eastern seaboard; Fort Erie, the Niagara Region and the Province of Ontario and, most importantly, the jobs that go with them. It impacts the lifestyle of a forgotten element in the equation, the good people of both our countries who regularly traverse the border." (Oh that prose. If he uttered those words on that wonderful cable channel that shows sessions of British Parliament you'd hear half the chamber going "Harrumph, harrumph, harrumph.")

Then Maloney leaves the bombast in favor of a curious threat: "If the project is killed by parochial U.S. political interests, let those responsible be prepared for the fallout which will surely follow."

What fallout could there possibly be? Mark Romoff suggested it: "There doesn't have to be a bridge at all," he said. "Buffalo and Fort Erie are lucky that they have a bridge and there is all this traffic. But it's possible that no new construction could take place. Or that a new bridge could go up somewhere else."

Not likely. If the Canadian interest is in getting a bigger bridge operational more quickly, then it makes little sense to start from scratch in a totally new location when much of the work-whichever design is adopted-has already been done here. If time really is essential, then even if we go on hold for the environmental impact study or for various details to be ironed out, we're still far ahead of a completely new design somewhere else. Countries don't have principles, as the diplomats say, they just have interests. It's probably in the interest of neither country to start afresh.

Much of the talk about what a signature span will do for Buffalo focuses on local pride and tourist traffic. The Canadian officials, most members of the PBA, and people like Rudnick aren't interested in local pride or tourist traffic at all. They're interested in commercial traffic. But some people question how much good Buffalo and Fort Erie actually receive from this huge caravan of semis roaring thru the area en route to and from places like Ottawa and Pittsburgh. Do they buy enough gas here for us to accept their fumes and pounding of our roads and consumption of our riverfront parkland? Maybe, maybe not. What if this were just a passenger passover? If the trucks found another way to go to and fro, would Buffalo be better or worse off? When Canadians threaten to take the trucks away there are people who say, "Yeah? So?"

I think we can ignore Maloney's saber-rattling, but I don't think we can ignore the real difference in the way Canadians and Buffalonians regard this project. The gap in opinion is far wider than the physical distance that separates us. The Canadians are neither fools nor Philistines. After all, most of our own elected officials didn't get interested in this affair until there had been a huge amount of grassroots agitation pushing them in that direction. Until a few months ago, the Buffalo News had all but abandoned the signature bridge. Things turned around because Senator Moynihan and Buffalo Common Council President James Pitts continued hammering at the issue, and because the alternative press kept running articles about it, the New Millennium action group kept increasing pressure on politicians to reexamine the bridge question, and Democrats Schumer and Spitzer replaced Republicans D'Amato and Vacco.

Nothing like that has happened on the Canadian side, so there has been no reason for Canadian officials, let alone Canadian members of the PBA, to rethink their position, or to redefine who the "stakeholders" are.

Taste and Time
Consul-General Romoff said he thought only a fool would prefer the ugly to the beautiful. He said if there were alternate plans on the table that could reasonably be compared, then there might have been a different outcome. But, he said, there weren't any alternative plans that were more than preliminary ideas. By the time Freschi-Lin was presented 18 months ago, the PBA's plan had been worked out in great detail, and Freschi-Lin was little more than a great design. "There was only one fully substantiated plan on the table," he said. The numbers, he said, just weren't there for anything else. What we have, he said, is a conflict between "pragmatic" interest on one side and "emotional" interests on the other. I think "pragmatic" means "we've got goods to move across the border" and "emotional" means " we don't want to look at an ugly bridge every day."

I asked him if Canada would built this ugly bridge in Montreal or Toronto or Vancouver. He paused a moment and said, "Probably." I bet they'd also probably take a lot more time considering the alternatives once the alternatives were offered. The simple fact is, no one in official Canada gives much of a hoot about Fort Erie aesthetics, let alone Buffalo aesthetics. If you doubt that, take a look at downtown Fort Erie: customs brokers, gooch joints, Chinese restaurants, and one of the biggest hard liquor stores and signature sweatshirt duty-free joints on the Canadian-American border.

Romoff doesn't believe that a signature bridge can be done in a reasonable amount of time, nor does he buy Schumer's and Moynihan's insistence that shifting to a signature bridge will cost no more than a year. He says that the permissions and clearances from a dozen or so Canadian and American agencies that have already been obtained by the PBA will take much longer than that, and that the process of seeking those clearances can't even begin until the proponents of a signature bridge deliver something far more specific than a beautiful design.

Truth and Consequences
What's the truth of all this? If the Freschi-Lin numbers are soft, how long would it take for them to get hard? (I'd prefer "vague" and "specific" myself, but "soft" and "hard" are the adjectives everybody involved in this seems to prefer.) We know now that PBA numbers were off the mark, but how much does any of that matter anyway? Does a difference of ten or twenty million dollars count for much in a project of this size involving a structure meant to last a century? How long would it really take to get what Romoff says is needed to make a fair judgment, which is plans of equal detail? Is there a way to expedite the clearances, as Schumer and Moynihan insist, or is the bureaucracy to methodical, as Romoff believes? There's no way for you and me to know. We only get reports from the front lines.

Romoff argues that people are going off in all different directions and no agency or no official seems capable of bringing everyone to the same table to have a conversation that lets all interests have equal and fair voice. He may be right. Surely the PBA hasn't provided that service. Its solution is to tell us all to shut up now because it opened its doors to full public participation five years ago and we didn't come up with a signature bridge idea then. I haven't been able to find any evidence of any such invitation, of any openness to the public at the beginning. Lately, the PBA tactics seem more bullying than reasoning. A week ago the five American members, in an attempt to forestall the likely lawsuits, suggested a 45-day timeout while some outside evaluator was asked to check the options. The five Canadian members refused en bloc. No more conversation about anything, they said. And the attempt by the American five to avoid a time-consuming lawsuit has nothing to do with their position on the bridge itself: it's still nine to one, with Barbara Kavenaugh the only member of the PBA who would vote for a signature bridge.

Is there a way to mediate the Canadian and American economic interests and the Buffalo and Fort Erie quality of life interests? Need those issues be totally separate and need the sides to be at war with one another? Isn't there a way both can be represented in the conversation and both honored in the resolution?

A Modest Proposal
Next month, the terms of three of the five Canadian members on the PBA run out: Dr. Patricia K. Teal (eye doctor and surgeon, Fort Erie), John A. Lopinsky (CPA from Port Colborne and the present chair of the PBA), Roderick H. McDowell (attorney, Fort Erie). The terms of the other two run out in November (Deanna DiMartile, Fort Erie) and Peter Caperchione (Port Colborne), both retired.

Canadians keep saying that they're insulted because people on our side of the border aren't spending adequate time considering their feelings and opinions. They're right; we haven't and we should. But people on our side think the Canadian members of the PBA don't give a hoot about what we think or care about, they're interested only in ratifying their own actions and choices over the past five years. What will Canada do about that? Give them another six years to continue doing it or replace some of them with people who are really interested in talking to Americans about a problem that matters to people other than masters of commerce?

How about appointing to that Authority a few people who are not so glued to the sunk costs of the past five years they can't take a fresh look at a problem that is causing a worsening wound between people who should and can be far better friends? And while they're getting up to speed, how about giving Freschi and Lin an invitation to harden their numbers to everyone's satisfaction?

We've got a troubled bridge over ordinary waters. Maybe it's time for a little de-escalation of rhetoric on both sides and a return to the civil assumption that neither side really wants to hurt or ignore or trivialize the other. It just looks that way.

copyright 1999 Bruce Jackson

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