(Artvoice March 25, 1999)

Sinking the Twin Span

by Bruce Jackson

Last week the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority ran a full-page ad in the Buffalo News justifying its refusal to consider any Peace Bridge plan other than its own. They've also been running multiple radio ads. The ad campaign remind me of Mary McCarthy's famous evaluation of Lillian Hellman: "Every word she writes is a lie, including the 'ands' and the 'thes.'"

Contrary to the ad's claims, the current bridge is not a historical treasure, it is decrepit and needs massive repairs, the only deadlines missed by taking the time to do this right are deadlines the Authority itself imposed, and the Authority's twin span will cost more, take longer to complete, and will generate far worse traffic congestion than the six-lane concrete signature bridge proposed by Bruno Freschi and T. Y. Lin. Even the end of the ad-"Peace Bridge Authority" in large letters-misleads: that's not the Authority's legal name.

Attorney General Elliot Spitzer says the Authority never held the required public hearings. Why didn't a board member point that out before we got into the present mess? Because in March 1997 Attorney General Dennis Vacco substituted Brian Lipke, president and CEO of Gibraltar Steel, for the Board's traditional watchdog of the public's interest, the head of the Attorney General's Buffalo office.

Brian Lipke loves the twin span design. Steel is his business and he has no interest in the Freschi-Lin concrete signature bridge. Neither is he interested in aesthetics: "The most beautiful bridge in the world," he said in 1997, "is one that works and pays for itself." Lipke owns more than half his family's $250 million in Gibraltar common stock, a company his father bought in 1972 for $1 million. He is a major contributor to and fundraiser for the Republican Party, which is why he got the seat on the PBA board and why, after Spitzer replaced him, the Pataki administration gave him the seat ordinarily held by the State's Department of Transportation. That's two people's representatives Brian Lipke got to displace because of his clout with high-placed Republicans.

Both of New York's US Senators, its Attorney General, the Erie County Executive, nearly all members of the Buffalo Common Council, the Baird Foundation, the Landmark Society, many other officials and organizations, and most of the public favor the Freschi-Lin signature bridge. The only elected officials of note who support the twin span are Mayor Anthony Masiello and Congressman John Lafalce. Neither has offered any substantial reason for his position, but Masiello's choice is easy to figure out: he's been in bed with Pataki since before the last election and he's now dancing to tunes you and I can't hear. I can't understand Lafalce's position on this, since on most public interest issues he's been a pretty sensible guy.

Masielo and Lafalce are now in an ever-thinning minority, so we needn't fret about them. The really puzzling question is why Brian Lipke and his supporters cling to and vigorously defend a design hardly anyone wants or likes. Some people say it's all about money, but that's too simple. Most of the people who are going to make money on this will make money whatever bridge design is selected. Not all, but most.

The Authority's entrenchment began to make sense to me last week when I heard another PBA board member angrily tell a TV reporter that if people wanted a signature bridge they should have come up with the idea three or four years ago, that the board had invested a lot of time and energy working on the twin span and it wasn't right to just move on to something new now. No, it just wasn't right. Not after they'd done all that work.

Sound familiar? It's the logic of poor poker players seeing bets when other players obviously hold better cards, and it's the logic of the US government staying in Vietnam long after it should have gotten out: "We've invested so much, we can't back out now." It is the fallacy of sunk costs, familiar to anyone who has taken Economics 101. "Sunk costs" are what you spent in the past; the fallacy is when you let those old expenditures control what you do next.

Would Brian Lipke modernize a decrepit steel plant if projections showed it would be a loser anyway? Why can't he and his supporters say, "Our staff produced a plan we
liked, a better plan has emerged, let's go with that"? You and I shouldn't have to pay for and live with an expensive, ugly and anachronistic twin span only because the Authority can't or won't apply to public architecture the same good sense Brian Lipke applies every day to matters of cold hard steel. It's time for them to cut their losses and tend to our future.

copyright 1999 Bruce Jackson

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