(Artvoice 4 November 1999)
Peace Bridge Secrets
by Bruce Jackson
Every week I receive letters and email messages that begin with lines like, "You've written all these articles about the Bridge, how come you've never written about . . . " or "I don't want to sound paranoid, but . . . " or "This may be a naive question, but I'd like to know . . . " The questions are just about never naive or paranoid, and the only reason I don't answer them is because I haven't been able to learn the answers.
The Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority and the Peace Bridge Public Review Panel agreed last month on a process that may bring the acrimonious Peace Bridge expansion project to a decent resolution. But many important questions remain unanswered--some because nobody knows the answers and some because the people who do know aren't willing to tell the rest of us.
Perhaps some readers who know more than we do can help. My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org and I welcome informed advice. In any case, it's important to keep asking questions, about things that matter, even if the answers are not immediately forthcoming. Knowing what we don't know is itself an important thing to know. Here are a few of the current questions:
1. Is Transport Canada trying to sabotage the Peace Bridge review process agreed to by the Public Bridge Authority last month?
After months of public stonewalling and behind-the-scenes negotiations, the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority agreed last month to take part in and abide by the Peace Bridge Public Review Panel's evaluation of alternatives to the unpopular twin span idea. A few days after the agreement was signed, the Fort Erie newspaper quoted PBA chairman John Lopinski as saying they'd promised to "pursue" but not to "build" anything other than his pet twin span. It seemed like a cynical waffle, but everyone I've talked to about it says that was just Lopinski showing off to a reporter, that at the end neither he nor any of the other Canadian PBA members would want to be caught having acted so cynically and hypocritically.
The deal's lynchpin was the involvement in the design evaluation process of a major Canadian architectural firm, which was to have been named by Transport Canada Minister John Collenette five days after the October 13 press conference in Buffalo city hall at which Mayor Masiello announced the agreement. It was to be all cooperation and modern science now. The Canadian engineers would have a specified time to get up to speed on the project, then would work jointly with the American engineers. The Review Panel pushed the project date for its final report into early next year to accommodate the Canadian team. The name of the likely firm--a highly-respected Vancouver group-was unofficially bruited about within hours of the city hall press conference.
The problem is, Transport Canada still hasn't made it official: John Collenette never named the Canadian engineers who would work with the American engineers. That puts everything on hold but the clock. Collenette doesn't return phone calls on the question.
This may be what Texas convicts call a "slow-buck." A slow-buck is screwing something up by working so slowly nothing really gets done. You don't ever say "I'm not gonna do that." You move around as if you really were doing something useful, but you're not. It's silent sabotage. Is that what John Collenette is doing?
Why would a high Canadian government official sabotage by deliberate inaction an agreement drafted primarily by his own five appointees? It might be because those appointees never cleared the deal with him or with any official of the Canadian government or Fort Erie town government. Collenette has never been ambiguous about his position on the US in general or the Peace Bridge in particular: he couldn't care less about either of them, and he probably doesn't care very much about Fort Erie, Ontario, either. Trucks and their contents are his concern, and perhaps the large profits to the Canadian steel mill that was promised the lucrative contract if an old-fashioned steel suspension bridge was built here. Will he back up his appointees to the PBA or will he leave them dangling in the wind, looking foolish and precipitous?
2. Where's the Buffalo Niagara Partnership now that a resolution seems to be a possibility?
For well over a year the Buffalo Niagara Partnership and its CEO Andrew Rudnick did everything possible to squelch consideration of any design other than the twin span. The Partnership even contributed a very large sum of money in an attempt to defeat Common Council President James Pitts in last month's Democratic primary. Pitts is the single local politician who insisted the twin span was a lousy idea all along and he has consistently refused to buckle when the Partnership pressured politicians to shut up and go along. Andrew Rudnick was the only leader of any community group to advocate the twin span and oppose consideration of any alternatives at the public hearings of the Review Panel last August.
Now there is the possibility of a happy resolution to a process that was starting to have nasty international implications. How does that Buffalo Niagara Partnership feel about this Canadian-American partnership? Are they happy that resolution is possible? Are they working behind the scenes to scuttle it? They were so vocal for so long saying they had only the community's interests in mind. Now that the community has found a way to solve the problem, why are they silent?
3. What happened to Cannon?
Opposition to the twin span idea took form when Jack Cullen and Clint Brown came up with their SuperSpan idea, but Cullen and Brown never had a bridge design, all they had was the good sense to see that something much more useful and imaginative could be done in that construction project. Public opposition took fire only when Bruno Freschi and T. Y. Lin came up with their gorgeous curving concrete cable-stayed design. Freschi did his initial design working with students at U.B.'s School of Architecture, but once the project started getting complicated he moved it to Cannon, a large architectural firm based on Grand Island. Cannon provided artwork, cost projections, and engineering analyses. The combination of Cannon here and T.Y. Lin's firm in San Francisco took the air out of the claims by Andrew Rudnick and other twin span advocates that Freschi's plans were too sketchy to deserve serious consideration.
At the first public session of the Review Panel last August, Cannon provided an articulate and enthusiastic engineer to answer the complex technical questions that Freschi, who is an architect and not an engineer, would have been hard-pressed to answer on his own. It was a solid, lucid and impressive presentation.
Since that evening, Cannon has been absent from the entire process, at least from any public aspect of it. There were, so far as I could tell, no Cannon representatives at the Review Panel hearings in October. There have been no public statements about the bridge question from anyone at Cannon.
But Cannon president Mark Mendell was appointed to the board of directors of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, and Bruno Freschi moved to Washington, where he now lives in a condo only a few blocks from Cannon's small office, in which he works on some of Cannon's international projects.
Did Cannon back away from the Peace Bridge project because other new projects---the proposed convention center, for instance--were more attractive and a contract was more likely if Cannon made nice-nice with the People-in-Power? Was Mark Mendell's appointment to a board that, according to Rudnick, fiercely opposed Cannon's most interesting project in this area in years mere coincidence?, an indication that the Partnership was giving up its opposition to a signature span, or an indication that Cannon was abandoning its support of a signature span?
4. Why the silence from the American members of the PBA?
On several occasions last year, Governor George Pataki said he favored the signature span and was going to instruct his four appointees to the Public Bridge Authority to advocate it. The fifth American member is appointed by New York's attorney general, Elliott Spitzer, an outspoken advocate of the signature span. Why hasn't one of those five Americans spoken out about what's been going on in the PBA for the past year? It's not a secret society, it's not a privately-held corporation, it's not the Buffalo Niagara Partnership or the Saturn Club. So what's with the secrecy? Even Barbara Kavenaugh, Spitzer's appointee and a signature span advocate herself , has never said anything publicly about what goes on in those closed meeting rooms down at Peace Bridge Plaza. Why not?
Why are they silent about location of the plaza, restoration of Front Park, the two bridge plans, and the Canadian insistence on a bridge-plaza plan that will cost more, take longer to build, and look lousy? Why have they been silent about a plan that would run massive truck traffic through Buffalo's West Side residential areas for most of a decade? They're appointed by the governor and the attorney general, but not as personal representatives of the dukes. They're supposed to represent the public interest. What do they think that interest is? Why do they keep all those secrets? Why won't they ever come out and talk to us?
5. Why does the web site of the Public Review Panel contain so little useful information?
They keep promising to include all kinds of links and data, but so far what's gone up is trivia and anachronism: the consulting engineers' preliminary report, the text of the agreement proposed by the Public Bridge Authority, directions to the studios of WNED-TV for the August and October public sessions, the names of the panel members and consultants, and some PR stuff about the consulting engineers. That's it. The Review Panel's executive director, David Carter, promised much for this web site at the informational sessions last summer, but thus far they've delivered virtually nothing. The opening screen is ugly and uninviting, with telephone and fax numbers in the teensiest possible type. In a decade when any high school kid knows how to put up a sexy web site and half of them have, this underutilization of a potentially powerful informational resource makes no sense at all. Check it out yourself: www.peacebridgereview.org.
6. Will Joel Giambra's defeat of Dennis Gorski for Erie County Executive unravel the Peace Bridge peace process?
Gorski has long been a strong advocate for a signature bridge and his staff--Rich Tobe in particular--were instrumental in getting the Public Bridge Administration to act as if it had community responsibilities. Joel Giambra assiduously avoided taking a position on the bridge issue in his recent campaign. Was it because he had no position, because he didn't want to offend anyone who might vote for him or give him money, or because he was in already someone's pocket and didn't want to let the other side know, or because he has real ideas about the bridge issue but didn't want to announce them before he was in a position to do anything about them? I wish we knew. His silence on this issue is really scary.
7. Will the process undertaken by the Review Panel accomplish anything useful?
This one I can answer.
If the various participants engage the process honestly and decently, then whatever the result we'll all feel that we got to it fairly and reasonably. If the various participants engage the process deceptively and dishonorably, then we'll know what kind of people they really are, and so will Judge Fahey when he revisits the three pending lawsuits next January, and so will whatever other judges are involved in this affair further down the line. It's not just New York appellate judges who may get to view this mess: all of these same questions about inadequate environmental review can be raised anew in the Federal courts.
I remain convinced that if any impartial body examines the issues and the facts, and if the data and process are public, we'll get a gorgeous bridge out of it. You only get dogs like that companion span when a small group of people talks only to itself and with a small gaggle of political and corporate cronies in rooms from which serious questions and high-level professional competence are excluded.
We'll get something good out of this, so long as the process isn't driven by hidden agendas, sabotage, and secret deals. And if there are hidden agendas, sabotage, and secret deals, we'll learn about them, and then we'll decide what to do about the people who so cynically betrayed their public interest. My hope, however, is that decency will prevail.
That is always the hope of nearly all of us. Hopes like that aren't fulfilled at random. That's why we've got to keep asking hard questions--right up to the end of this.
Bruce Jackson is SUNY Distinguished Professor and Samuel Capen Professor of American Culture at UB. His previous Artvoice articles on Peace Bridge politics are available on the web at www.brucejackson.net/allbridge.html. He welcomes answers to any of the questions in this article, questions that haven't been asked yet but should be, and any other reliable information about the proposed Peace Bridge or convention center projects.