(Artvoice 23 July 1999)

The New Woodrow Wilson Memorial Bridge:
Taking the High Road to Public Works

by Bruce Jackson

An Agency with Enemies
It's no secret that the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority considers community groups on this side of the river an inconvenience to be avoided whenever possible and fended off any way that seems legal. They have consistently refused to cooperate with citizen's groups, and the only public hearings they've permitted on the new bridge have been shams with a few invited innocents who thought the game was for real, suckers who didn't know that the key decisions had already been made in secret.

The PBA has stonewalled every attempt to involve them in any look at the issue other than their own staged affairs or affairs managed by hired hands and collaborators, like executives from the engineering firm of Parsons and Andrew Rudnick of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership.* They carry on as if the Peace Bridge were a private business operation, the American public their enemy, and the Canadian public a bunch of fools who can be forever conned into accepting trash and bad planning.

A Better Way
That animosity and xenophobia exist only because the PBA is so hermetic and self-serving it can't or won't see any other options. But there are other options, options that get good work done, serve the public well, and leave everyone feeling good about what went on. It takes more work than the PBA has been willing to put forth and more trust in the public than it can muster, but some public officials feel it is reasonable for them to do a little more work and have a little more trust if the result is a bridge that works well and a public that feels its public officials have served it well and fairly.

A case in point is the project to modernize the Woodrow Wilson Memorial Bridge, which crosses the Potomac from Maryland into Virginia just south of Alexandria as part of the southern segment of the Capitol Beltway, I-495/I-95.

The six-lane Wilson bridge was built in 1959. The traffic load then was 19,000 vehicles per day. The designers built it to handle what seemed to them more than would be needed in the lifetime of the bridge--up to 75,000 vehicles per day-but their estimates weren't even close. By 1980 more than 100,000 vehicles crossed the bridge every day and now the rate is 200,000 vehicles per day. The problem was compounded by the nature of the traffic: a large portion of the increase was heavy trucks, so the bridge has deteriorated at a far more rapid rate than anyone expected.

Sound familiar? Sure, the same thing happened to the Peace Bridge, with slightly different numbers. But there is one significant difference: the public agency empowered to modernize the Wilson bridge decided to involve the community, rather than patronize and deceive it, and they've come up with a design people like after engaging in a process all involve parties respect.

Everybody's Evironmental Impact Studies
The Woodrow Wilson Memorial Bridge is owned by the Federal Highway Administration. In 1991, the FHA conducted a draft environmental impact study. The Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority has consistently refused to do any kind of EIS, and has instead engaged in vigorous and snaky legal maneuvering to avoid its responsibility to do one. One key conclusion of the Wilson Bridge preliminary EIS was that more community organizations had to be involved-exactly the reason the PBA has avoided doing one here. Unlike the PBA, The Federal Highway Authority took the position that its responsibility went beyond accommodating truckers; it had a responsibility to the communities on either side of the river through which those trucks moved.

They created a Coordination Committee composed of state and local elected officials and senior government executives from the region. The committee was charged with finding a solution that would ameliorate the traffic problem and address community and environmental concerns. They opened a site office and a Study and Design Center, and engaged in extensive public outreach. After many public and interagency meetings, workshops, and symposia, they issued a supplemental draft EIS in January 1996. They sought reviews and comments from all concerned. On August 12 of the same year, they issued a second supplemental draft EIS, and submitted that document to review and comment from everyone concerned.

As here, it wasn't just a problem of fixing a superannuated bridge: there was also the problem of what the bridge connected to. Here we've got the two plazas, there they've got the highway interchange systems. The Coordination Committee recognized the total project would have major effects on the surrounding communities; the PBA has segmented the bridge from the plaza construction in an effort to pretend that they can do one separately from the other. They're not that dumb, they know that's absurd. They separated the projects as part of their legal maneuvering to avoid the EIS, which would have forced them to consider community concerns.

Bear in mind that the increase in Peace Bridge traffic underlying this whole affair is trucks. Auto traffic is down. We're a casualty of NAFTA. There is federal help out there, but the PBA has refused to ask for it because that would have forced them to engage in the environmental impact study, which would have allowed for serious consideration of alternative designs, which neither they nor their design and maintenance consultants want.

Instead of hiding from the public, the Federal Highway Administration and the Coordination Committee sought it out. Instead of seeing the public as their enemy, they saw the public as their client. Instead of satisfying their own needs and desires, they asked the public what were its needs and desires. Instead of seeing their job as exercising power, they saw their job as engaging in public service.

They had ten Town Hall meetings in various locations. They had numerous open houses, citizen work groups (design, environmental issues, interchange issues, housing and neighborhood improvement, regional perspectives, traffic projections, trucking issues, transit issues). They did more than 50 displays to civil and professional associations.

The Coordination Committee considered some 350 concepts and came up with seven possibilities, out of which they selected one. The first item in their list of reasons for their choice among the seven alternatives was "highest level of public support." Another was that it had the "lowest overall impact to parks and historic sites." The Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority has ignored public opinion and has chosen the option that will destroy the most parkland.

After the Coordination Committee made their choice they again invited public suggestions and comments. It wasn't just window-dressing, like the Buffalo News charettes here, now referred to as "the charades."

But the Coordination Committee wasn't finished. It prepared a final environmental impact study, which was released for public and agency review on September 2, 1997. That document addressed all the concerns raised at the various stages leading to the preliminary environmental impact studies.

All along, they maintained a community center where anyone could come in, look at documents, make suggestions, complain, and they also maintained a web site that kept the public informed of where everything was all along the way. That web site is still there; it helped me prepare this article. You can look at it too: www.wilsonbridge.com. It's an interesting, intelligent, and friendly web site. If you do visit it, I suggest you follow with a look at the web site of the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority: www.peacebridge.com. You'll find the differences informative.

What Parsons Didn't Tell
Once the Coordination Committee decided what they wanted and what would be acceptable, they had a design competition: they invited serious submissions and underwrote part of the cost involved in preparing the most interesting of them. In contrast, the PBA and Parsons decided what they wanted and then they had sham public hearings. They never considered any alternative to the companion bride plan they had before the public hearings began. They never considered community concerns because of their Big Lie: that the bridge and plaza projects were separate. (The PBA may have stepped on its own foot two weeks ago in its lawsuit trying to force the city of Buffalo to issue construction permits. One of their arguments was that they had spent a good deal of money on what would be part of the new plaza. It is, to my knowledge, the first time that the PBA has admitted in public that it was deceiving us all along about the separability of the projects.)

The design for the new Wilson bridge is actually for two matched bridges, real twins, but unlike the companion bridge the PBA would impose on us here, these fit the landscape, they aren't ugly, they reduce the number of piers in the water by two-thirds, and they harmonize the other nearby bridges on the Potomac in the D.C. area. Which is to say, the design is appropriate to the environment rather than an insult to it.

Once the Wilson bridge design was chosen, there were more Stakeholder Participation Panels. The bridge authorities defined their relationship with the community as continuing, not occasional. Not only were there government agencies and officials, but also the Sierra Club, AAA, bicycler user groups, and others. Their comments will be used to help design the interchanges and do final tuneups on the bridge design itself.

Here's the shocker: the successful design was submitted by Parsons. Yes: the same outfit that gave us the profoundly ugly twin span adopted by the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority.

On division of Parsons has been the PBA's technical consultant for more than 30 years. They've also had the contract for bridge maintenance. All projections indicate that the cost of maintenance of the twin spans will far exceed the cost of building the second span and rehabilitating the old bridge. If the concrete signature bridge design were to replace the Parsons companion span design, Parsons would lose millions in long term profits from maintaining two anachronistic steel bridges, one of them already decrepit. We'll never know if Parsons told the PBA all it learned about community involvement while working on the Wilson Bridge project or if it decided to keep very very quiet, protecting those maintenance millions.

Learning From Experience
I don't know if the members of the PBA appreciate or understand how considerately the Woodrow Wilson Memorial Bridge project was handled. If they don't, I recommend a visit to the Wilson web site and that they read Henry Petroski's description of the competition process, "Drawing Bridges," American Scientist, vol 87 July-August 1999, 302-306. I suspect they neither know nor care, that they will continue their stonewalling and keeping their eyes wide shut.

But the various groups mobilizing to challenge the PBA position or evaluate alternatives can take heart from what happened in Washington: it is possible to involve all groups having a legitimate interest in a major public works project and wind up with a result that benefits everybody. All it takes is a willingness to treat the public as if it were as important as a firm with a lucrative maintenance contract or a steel mill hoping to make a lot of money or a distant manufacturer shipping heavy things from one place to another.

the footnote:
*The former Chamber of Commerce. They have a curious web page: all kinds of information about their activities but no information at all about who their directors and officers are. If you look up "directors" on their search page you get a list of undertakers. Check it yourself: www.gbpartnership.org/about.html. We wrote and requested a list of current directors and officers, but got no reply.

copyright 1999 Bruce Jackson
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