(Artvoice 29 April 1999)
 

The Nail and the Teeter-Totter:
Ending the Peace Bridge Stalemate

by Bruce Jackson
 
 

It's no longer a local issue and our newest secret is out. The Washington Post ran a not very accurate or insightful article on it last Thursday, the New York Times ran it as a major story, and Time magazine columnist Stephen Handelman is analyzing it in depth. We are no longer known only as the town of world-class snow and chicken wings, but, along with our friends in Fort Erie, we're the place that can't agree on how to get from one side of the river to the other.

The Nail
Everybody knows that old saw "For want of a nail the shoe was lost, for want of the shoe the horse was lost...." and on and on through the lost soldier, the lost battle, and finally the lost war. The moral is "Little things mean a lot" or "Pay attention to the details" or "What you don't notice can kill you," or something else equally obvious and no doubt true.

But rarely in real life are we able to find exactly the thing that set in motion the sequence that only in retrospect reaches a conclusion that seem inevitable and unchangeable.

Bruno Freschi thinks the nail in the Peace Bridge affair was when someone on or working for the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority decided that the 1926 bridge Frank Baird built was of historical value and that if they tore it down we would scream and yell at them, that we would do exactly what we're doing now because they're NOT tearing it down. When I first heard him say that I thought he was being unnecessarily generous, but now I think he may very well be right. "Somebody gave them bad information years ago," Freschi said, "and it all follows from that."

I don't know when it happened. I don't know if it was a member of the Authority or a staff member (a lot of the really steamy rhetoric coming out of the PBA lately has come from staff, not the ten appointed members). I don't know if it even rose to the point of conversation or if it was just a tacit assumption made by everyone sitting around the table back when the first decisions were being made.

I do know that thirty years ago, long before NAFTA, the New York Department of Transportation predicted that the current bridge would not continue to be adequate. DOT pointed to four possible solutions: increase the manned toll, immigration and customs services on both sides of the border or increase the number of lanes in one of three ways: widen the current bridge, build a parallel bridge, or build an entirely new bridge.

Staffing of the booths is still a problem, and just last week Customs Commissioner Raymond Kelly said he would assign 25 new part-time inspectors to the area's four bridges this summer. That will help, but it won't solve the problem in the short or long run. Few of those part-time employees will be coming to the Peace Bridge and, more important, the likely increase in traffic here is such that in a few years the bridge will have major traffic jams even without customs and INS inspections or toll booths.

The 1994 Structural Design Conference
People opposed to the signature span say its proponents should have come forward five years ago, and they frequently remind us that the PBA considered eleven alternatives to its current companion span design. But proponents of a signature span, had any been around five years ago, couldn't have come forward because they were already locked out of the conversation: the historical assumption had been made and the PBA was considering only widening or twinning.

This is documented in the Peace Bridge Capacity Expansion: Draft Environmental Assessment, a report prepared by the Public Bridge Authority in September 1996. Chapter three, "Bridge Crossing Alternatives," reports on a structural design conference held in September 1994. "The Conference was attended by the Bridge Authority and representatives of the four consulting engineering companies." Nobody from the general public, no designers with other ideas, nobody but the PBA, its staff, and the engineering firms it was paying to provide advice. We needn't assume malign intent here: in those days, everybody assumed that the PBA represented the public, that the five Americans and five Canadians were looking out for all of our interests.

Here is the key paragraph, the one that established the policy decision we're all fighting about now:

The Structural Conference concluded that capacity expansion of the existing bridge would be required within the very near future. Therefore, the group of consulting engineers collectively prepared and identified preliminary alternatives for expanding the bridge's capacity. The alternatives included widening the existing structure, or alternatively constructing a parallel structure either to the north or south of the existing bridge, that would be visually compatible with the existing bridge.
There was no consideration at all of entirely replacing the old bridge. The consulting engineers were never asked or allowed to deal with that possibility. You can read their full report in another PBA document: The Peace Bridge: Structural Conference, Report of Findings, October 1994.

The 1996 consultants examined eleven possible ways to build a companion bridge. One of their hypothetical bridges was cable-stayed, the kind of structure proposed by Bruno Freschi and T. Y. Lin, but theirs was a cumbersome affair with three huge towers constructed of materials now obsolete that needed a good deal of maintenance and frequent replacement. The consultants faulted their own design on two primary counts: expensive maintenance (not an issue if it were built of the materials used by modern bridge builders) and ugly in juxtaposition to the current bridge (which is indeed true, and why everyone thought Mayor Masiello goofy when he proposed something like this a month ago). They also cited as a possible problem interference with bird traffic. They may be the source of that cockamamie canard.

Turtling Up
So the ten members of the PBA, appointed to handle mundane affairs like tolls, repaving, and rust on the truss (the Americans serving without pay since Mario Cuomo was governor), found themselves enmeshed in a project of huge public significance. For a while it seemed simple enough: their assumption that the Baird bridge had historical value meant a replacement bridge was out of the question, and widening was impractical because it would block traffic in one or more lanes of the current bridge for years. A companion span seemed to make a great deal of sense; it may even have seemed the only way to go.

They then spent a good deal of money getting someone to design a companion span that wouldn't look absurd next to the Baird bridge or cause problems for myopic birds.

It all fell apart as people in the area became aware of the design, started talking about the absurdity of it, challenged the initial assumptions, and came up with new proposals. Locked into its companion bridge idea, the PBA separated the bridge and plaza projects, a move no one has ever adequately defended. Freschi and others argue that you can't build a bridge without knowing where it's going to land, that the plaza has to be part of the bridge design. "Form follows function," one prominent businessman puts it. "I keep telling them, 'It's the plaza, stupid.' Nobody listens.'"

The attacks started and the PBA went into defensive mode. They stopped listening and started fighting. They spent tens of thousands of dollars buying full-page ads in the Buffalo News and thousand more for spot commercials on local radio stations. One official said, "All of us sudden everybody was yelling at them so they turtled up."

Then, three weeks ago, there seemed the possibility of a break: the five American members of the PBA were willing to let an outside team study consider whether or not there were good reasons to reopen the conversation. If nothing else, such a study would say to the public, "We're willing to listen." But the five Canadian members of the PBA were not willing to go along. The vote was an even five to five, which meant nothing would change. As far as the Canadians were concerned, it was over, finished, done with, set in concrete. As far as the Americans were concerned, the Canadians had decided to be deaf.

What the Canadians Don't Know
But it doesn't work like that. People don't arbitrarily decide to be bullies or blind and deaf to information. It's easy to demonize people by leveling such charges, but rarely do such charges get us anywhere. We're better off asking questions that help us understand what has happened than we are blaming everyone in sight.

So why are the Canadians apparently so much less interested in the Freschi-Lin signature design than people this side of the border? So far as I've been able to find out, it's because they've gotten most of their information from PBA staff-written press releases and the Buffalo News. They don't know that there is a viable alternative. They never read Bruno Freschi's responses to the charges against the signature bridge because the Buffalo News never interviewed Bruno Freschi. They never had a chance to learn how Boston solved an almost identical problem because the Buffalo News never ran a story about the Boston experience (see Tom Schofield's illuminating and insightful piece in this issue of Artvoice). And, most important of all, no public official they know well enough to trust has told them that there is every likelihood that the Freschi-Lin bridge will bring them what they want-velocity and volume of traffic-sooner and more cheaply than the companion design.

Even when the Buffalo News does cover the story it's difficult to trust the information. Last Sunday, for example, the News ran "In Fort Erie, twin span support is solid," a man-in-the-street article by Patrick Lakamp. The longest quotations were from a man identified only as "Fort Erie lawyer John Teal." Teal got to kvetch without challenge about all the things presumably wrong with the signature bridge proposal. "Where were these people seven years ago?" he said. "I see no reason to debate this. It starts to strain the bounds of logic. This is just politics on the American side. It's a shame that would get in the way of this project."

No: what's really a shame is that Buffalo News reporter Lakamp didn't include in his article the key fact he knew about John Teal's opinions: John Teal, Lakamp told me, is the brother of Peace Bridge Authority board member Dr. Patricia Teal. John Teal is not a man-in-the-street. He's a spokesman for the Canadian half of the PBA and the Buffalo News knew it.

There's something truly ironic about this I think no one has mentioned before: the people who will get the most benefit out of a gorgeous signature bridge won't be the residents of Buffalo, it will be the residents of Fort Erie. Once you get off the three or four blocks of joints near the power lines, Fort Erie is a lovely town. It has quiet residential streets with very few of the abandoned buildings so common in much of Buffalo. If you drive along its waterfront you go along a carefully-maintained green space running all the way from Old Fort Erie to Niagara Falls. You'll be able to see the new bridge from all the houses along that route, and from all the picnic tables and walking areas, all the boat areas, all the bike paths. The Canadians have kept their side of the river accessible and beautiful, and the signature bridge will immediately become part of that precious landscape.

But on the American side: how do you get to the river? Not how do you cross it, but how do you get to it? Most of the river is blocked by the Thruway, by factories, by warehouses. People on this side of the river will get to see the new bridge as they drive by, but they'll have none of the easy access afforded the Canadians.

Nothing in the Canadian or Buffalo press has mentioned that in addition to a bridge providing six functional lanes and two fully functional plazas faster and cheaper, the Canadians will reap most of the visual benefits of the entire project.

So we can hardly blame the residents of Fort Erie for their failure to understand how things look from over here. In Buffalo, we've had an alternative press that has refused to let the issue go, a group of articulate concerned young professionals who have refused to let the issue go, and a growing number of local, state, and national politicians who have refused to let the issue go. They all have worked very hard to inform the public of the facts, of the real choices available. There has been no such effort and no such resource on the Canadian side of the river.

A Question of Leadership
But that's not how things have to remain. It was a long time before we learned the salient facts and once we did, public opinion began to develop and change. Knowledge is power.

Canadian Consul-General Mark Romoff and other Canadian officials have frequently complained that American advocates of a signature span have failed to communicate with Canadians, that Americans have treated this as if it were an issue affecting the southern border only. Canadians are quite properly sensitive about things like that. I assume one of the reasons Fort Erie Mayor Wayne Redekop issued his statement a week ago about maybe forgetting the whole thing is he was annoyed when he learned from the newspapers that American politicians were planning on crossing the bridge to talk things over with him.

But something is missing: we have communicated with the Canadians, and we've done it for a long time. Canada has five federally-appointed members on the PBA and they have heard from significant number of Americans about how things appear from this side of the river.

Senators Moynihan and Schumer, New York Attorney General Spitzer, and all the other federal, state and local officials got involved in this for one simple reason: because the ten members of the PBA did not seem responsive to the rest of us or aware of the opportunity at hand. It was never a matter of our officials bullying the PBA, it was never a matter of us ignoring the Canadian people or their government.

Mark Romoff said last month that what was needed in this sad affair was leadership. "Where's the leadership, tell me that?" he said. I think he meant that good leadership might resolve the mess to everyone's satisfaction and benefit. He's right: the leaders have to come out and lead.

But the required leadership cannot come from the American side alone. It's already there on the American side: the two US senators, the young professionals, the legislators. Even Mayor Masiello is starting to make sense. But it's like playing on the teeter-totter by yourself: you can have the best intentions in the world but without a partner who's close to equal you're stuck on the ground or you're up in the air, neither a good place to be. A good place to be is both, which is what the signature bridge design can provide, if only everyone will stop defending the past and start thinking about the future.

The first poem in John Berryman's Pulitzer Prize-winning Dream Songs (1964) begins,

        Huffy Henry hid the day,
        unappeasable Henry sulked.
        I see his point, --a trying to put things over.
        It was the thought that they thought
        they could do it made Henry wicked & away.
        But he should have come out and talked.

Indeed. And likewise our Canadian friends: it's time to do more than sulk, it's time to act like equal partners, it's time to come out and talk. Consul-General Mark Romoff, Ambassador Raymond Chrétien, Transport Minister David M. Collenette, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien: it's time to come out and talk. The cars and trucks go both ways across the bridge, the river, and the border; it's time for conversation to do the same.
 
 

copyright 1999 Bruce Jackson

bridge articles page
recent articles page
bruce jackson homepage
email:bjackson@acsu.buffalo.edu