(Artvoice 23 December 1999)

Peace Bridge Chronicles:
The PBA Comes to the Table

by Bruce Jackson

The Border Problem
Truck traffic across the Peace Bridge has increased enormously since NAFTA and bridge officials say in few years there will be so much traffic on the bridge that traffic will clog even if there are no barriers of any kind on the American side. Maybe. In any case, we’re not there yet and we’re not close to it.

Most days a line of trucks stretches halfway across the Peace Bridge; some days the line goes all the way to the Canadian plaza and beyond. Except for the summer months, auto traffic generally moves at a brisk pace. The Public Bridge Authority is trying to boost auto traffic—they’ve even taken to posting advertisements for Canadian gambling joints at the tollbooths—but thus far the general trend of auto traffic is downwards. The only continuing traffic problem at the Peace Bridge is the trucks getting through U.S. Customs. And it’s only the trucks that the officials anxious to expand bridge capacity really worry about. Trucks are where the big money is.

Would having more Customs inspectors and a larger Customs facility speed things up? Of course. But it will take far more than merely telling Congress that we’ve got a problem here and we need more staff to deal with it. Robert Trotter, assistant commissioner of the US Customs Service, pointed out recently that since 1973 the priority job for U.S. Customs has been drug enforcement, not trade issues, and since the southern border has 90% of the drug traffic, the crossings there are getting nearly all the new Customs staff appointments. Trotter suggested that the norther border states do some of the concerted lobbying the southern border states have done so well, but it’s unlikely that Congressional lobbying alone will transcend the current national hysteria over illicit drugs. Expansion of Customs staff at this border would help our problems enormously, but unless the current gaggle of presidential candidates decide it a vote-getting issue, it’s probably not going to happen in the near future.

The Plaza Mess
A much larger truck processing facility would help the congestion problem. The Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority, the agency that administers the Peace Bridge, has long been aware that the plaza is the real bottleneck in the system. Even so, the PBA and its staff have thus far avoided any specific plaza planning and deliberately separated its bridge and plaza construction projects. That was so they might avoid a full-scale environmental impact study, which would have forced them to deal with the wide range of community concerns that have surfaced over the past year.

Their idea was that they could build a bridge from the American side (where they already owned a landing site, the current plaza) to the Canadian side (the Canadians didn’t care what kind of second bridge was built so long as it fed more trucks carrying Canadian goods to America and brought more gamblers carrying American money to Canada). Then, after that was done and irrevocable, they could address the plaza issue. With more bridge lanes the congestion problem would surely be far worse than it is now. If they had to eat the remaining parts of Front Park, how could the City of Buffalo say no? It was a nice end-run around the law and the community.

Bruno Freschi, whose design of a signature bridge catapulted this into a major public argument, insisted all along that it was absurd to talk about the bridge as if it were separable from the plaza. He objected strenuously when he was told that his design wouldn’t be considered at all unless he made it go to the current plaza. “It’s not a bridge, it’s a bridge system,” he said, “it lands somewhere and that’s an essential part of it, not something on the side.”

The PBA and its supporters never figured on the huge community response to Freschi’s ideas, the focus of the New Millennium Group on the bridge and plaza issues, and the creation of the Public Consensus Review Panel by the city, the county, and the Margaret L. Wendt and Community Foundations. Last summer, the Review Panel invited the PBA, Freschi and others to make public presentations and answer questions about their design ideas. The PBA ignored the invitation. Their notion then seemed to be that they were going to build the bridge they wanted to build and no one could force them to do otherwise.

That changed when the city, the Episcopal Church home and the Olmsted Society filed suits that, if successful, would have blocked any new bridge construction. The PBA filed suit to force the city to let it begin construction. Judge Eugene Fahey rejected the PBA’s suit, granted the city’s, and kept the Episcopal and Olmsted suits open. He said he’d make up his mind what to do about them when he saw how the PBA dealt with the final conclusions of the Review Panel.

That’s when the PBA decided it could no longer hang tough. If it didn’t work and play well with others, Judge Fahey would keep it from doing anything at all. And that is why the Peace Bridge senior staff finally appeared before the Public Consensus Review Panel to explain what it wanted to do and why.

A Grand Performance
On December 16, Earl Rowe and Stephen Mayer, the two general managers of the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority, presented to the Public Consensus Review Panel their plan for solving all the current problems.

Construction, Rowe said, “must begin in the summer of 2000. Yes, we need to have the shovels in the ground by next summer!” (I’m quoting from the printed version of his remarks.) Why the great hurry to break ground? Because more traffic is coming. What happens if the new bridge isn’t ready for the new traffic? Then it will go elsewhere. What’s so bad about it’s going elsewhere? Well, it would just be bad if it went elsewhere, that’s what’s so bad about it.

 “The purpose of your panel,” Rowe said, “is to educate the public, and we are happy to have the opportunity to present the facts associated with the urgency of this project.”  Not so: the purpose of the panel is to pick the best bridge and plaza option and educate the public about that. The education component is explanatory, not primary. This is a policy-determining body, not a school or a public relations firm.

Because of a new trade initiative called Continental One, Rowe said, they expect further increases in truck traffic on the bridge. “We need to have a new bridge built by the year 2003. No other crossing can have the required additional capacity any sooner than eight to ten years.” For more than a year now, critics of the PBA have pointed out that the PBA’s own schedule put completion of their project at a minimum of ten years, while all the other major bridge experts who had looked at the project (such as T.Y.  Lin and Eugene Figg) have insisted that a new bridge could be go through community consultation, a real environmental impact study, design, and construction in five to six years. Rowe just took the opposition’s numbers and plugged them in where his own consultant’s numbers used to be. Moreover, he didn’t include in his projection the fact that the old bridge will have to close in 2003 for rehabilitation, and that they’ll have to begin work on a new or expanded plaza about then as well. They might finish their bridge in 2003, but the complete system wouldn’t be complete until several years later. When? He estimated six years, exactly the time estimated by Lin and Figg.

“The environmental studies have been completed,” he said, “and approvals have been granted.” Well, that’s not quite right either: the environmental studies have not been completed—they’ve been avoided, sidestepped, slipped and slid around and below. That’s why so many people have complained about the segmentation and it’s what the lawsuits in Judge Fahey’s court are all about.

The most important single new piece of information in his opening statement was that the Town of Fort Erie is making a serious move to have the bridge designated as a heritage property in Canada. A similar initiative is underway on this side of the river. I think that means they’re trying to foreclose the option of removing the old bridge should the Review Panel recommend that a signature bridge be built. It’s cultural blackmail, but it probably wouldn’t hold up if a signature bridge were built that handled all the traffic. Would the heritage officials on either side of the border pay for the upkeep of an unused deteriorating bridge in need of major repairs? Not likely. Would the American heritage officials insist on preserving an unused bridge the very existence of which meant continued despoliation of a beautiful Olmsted park? Not likely.

Steven Mayer then discussed several large pictures on easels along the side of the room. The first showed the current Peace Bridge next to a bridge that was its twin except it had a pretty arch where the current bridge has the ugly Parker truss. Mayer said that the designers of the Peace Bridge never wanted the truss, it was forced on them by U.S. Coast Guard height requirements. Then he showed a picture just like the first, except the old bridge had been retrofitted with the pretty arch, just like its new companion. To do that, he said, they’d have to close the old bridge for a while and replace the Parker truss with the pretty arch. They didn’t have the money for that, he said, but it could be done. If someone came up with the money.

Then he showed designs for two plaza locations, one north and the other east of the current plaza. Both freed up all of the property in Front Park that the current bridge and Customs operations have consumed. Both would require rotating where the two companion or twin bridges landed and building new access roads and ramps. How would you rotate two bridges that were operating at capacity? Where would the funds come from? He didn’t know about that. But it could be done if someone provided the money. How long would traffic be disrupted while that reconfiguration was in process? He didn’t say.

Then Earl Rowe took over again. He warned of the dangers of considering any other design:

“We want to alert you to the fact that if a concept is presented that is a radical departure from any of these, the bridge will not be built for at least another decade. It will not be built immediately. That is a fact. Why? It will require an extensive round of environmental assessments and could lead to a super EIS that alone could take 3-5 years. After that, is about 2 years of design and several years of construction. We cannot afford it! Not only can we not afford it–we don’t need to. And the costs will escalate with every time delay. We at the Peace Bridge, with the support of our users and our citizens, have addressed all the concerns raised over the past several months. Now it is the time to make an educated decision.

“There is tremendous merit in this plan. It has strength and viability, and meets the time frame that will help make the Peace Bridge the landmark gateway! We take this very seriously.

“I want to stress that we will all lose if we do not begin building this bridge by next summer. However, more positively, we all win if the bridge is begun then. Because if it is–we will be positioning the City of Buffalo and the Town of Fort Erie as urban areas whose greatest concerns are economic growth and being a wonderful place to hold a job and raise a family.”

They handed out to the panel members and press packets containing pictures of the two spans, maps of the two plazas, the text of Earl Rowe’s comments, and their new business cards, which carry as a logo a drawing of the bridge with the pretty span.

I thought the picture of their new bridge next to the present bridge looked klutzy, but I rather liked the look of the twin bridges. They’re not beautiful like any of the signature bridge designs I’ve seen, but they’re nice to look at in the picture. I liked the way the arches over the Black Rock Canal echoed the arches supporting the rest of the bridge. Steve Mayer said they had a certain elegance and I think he’s right. They wouldn’t embarrass us.

Of course, that design would be far more expensive to build and maintain, would take far longer to complete and would cause far more traffic disruption all the way than building a six-lane signature bridge and new plaza north of the present plaza. And, as Mayer said, they don’t have the money to reconfigure the old bridge anyway. So it’s just an idea, nothing more. They have no plans to do it.

Trust Me
It was a fine performance, really polished and integrated. Earl Rowe didn’t attempt to argue any of the points raised by any of the opponents of the twin span design or schedule. He simply asserted they were all wrong and the PBA was all right. Neither he nor Steve Mayer argued the PBA’s opponents’ assertions that the current plaza is a disaster functionally, socially, economically, and ecologically. Their plan took no responsibility for the relocation or rehabilitation of it, only credit if someone else came up with the money to move it elsewhere later and could persuade them to rotate the landing of the bridge. They adapted as their own the time frame of their critics, and blamed the critics for the dysfunctional schedule for which they themselves had been faulted.

It was brilliant. It was at once the absurdity of Through the Looking Glass and the topsy-turvey Newspeak of 1984.

When they began talking about new plaza options I thought it was maybe a divide and conquer gambit, that they were holding fast to their twin span idea while trying to seduce the plaza advocates away from the larger opposition. But if it was an attempted seduction, it was doomed to failure because didn’t offer anything of substance. The only thing real, so far as I could tell, were the pictures–and they were photographs of a model, and one of those photographs (the one with the two new arches) was a computer manipulation of the other. The single thing they said they wanted to do and were ready to do was build the bridge they’ve wanted to build all along. Everything else was possibilities, things in the air.

All the alternative plans still cost far less than the PBA plan and would be completed sooner. The PBA slashed four years from its proposed construction schedule, but neither Rowe nor Mayer gave any idea where those four years went. There was no new engineering data, no new design; they just subtracted four from ten and got six. All of the other designs would have less impact on water flow and be made of more modern materials that last longer and cost far less to maintain than the present bridge or the steel suspension bridge they want to build next to it. All of them contain plaza design as part of the plan, not some later happenstance.

This is like a Warner Brothers cartoon, where the wolf having been frustrated in earlier bullying maneuvers now comes smiling and bearing a basket of goodies. But the goodies are full of ground glass: eat them and the wolf wins. I can’t imagine the Review Panel falling for this.

One panel member said afterwards that this was the first time the PBA has been willing to be specific about anything but its companion span design. One of his colleagues was unimpressed: "The only specific thing I heard them say they wanted to  do is start construction next summer. The rest is all trust me. Why should we trust them now? The only reason they're here is because Gene Fahey gave them no other choice."

Right he is. The PBA is in a far weaker position than it was before Judge Fahey ruled against them on three counts and held off ruling on the fourth. They cannot break ground unless the city, the Episcopal Church Home and the Olmsted Society say it's okay. They don't have a fallback position, they lost the easement case, they have no choice but to remain at the table. Maybe some time soon they'll decide to stop fighting the community and will join it in conversation instead.

copyright 1999 Bruce Jackson

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