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It's Already Built

Forget the Peace Bridge, leave the Skyway, and focus on tough chores

The dream of the climate-conscious pro-Buffalo person today goes something like this: We needn’t fret that demographers at Cornell, Penn, the US Census, and elsewhere all concur that the Buffalo-area population will shrink by another 100,000 in the next ten years. The horrible drought in Phoenix, Houston, Atlanta, and the Plains will get us a whole herd of “climate refugees” who want our fresh water and our built environment of six Frank Lloyd Wrights, a Sullivan, and some Richardsons, an Olmsted system, and our new knowledge economy.

Those of us already happily here should indeed be thinking about newcomers, whether they are climate-change refugees, political refugees, Buffalo blow-ins, Buffalo boomerangs, or babies—and we should start getting our elected officials and civic leaders thinking about what works, what’s dumb, and what’s not talked about but needs to be.

Here’s a synthesis of Ed Glaeser, John Norquist, Jane Jacobs, Kathy Mecca, and every 20-something who comes around the family dining room table with the experience of seeing how other places work: When we think about public policy in Buffalo, we should focus on people, on making the place cleaner, greener, and smarter, and more about the next thing than about the last thing.

Harvard economist Ed Glaeser came to town in 2007 to tell us to stop pouring concrete and to invest instead in our people, even if some of those human-capital developments walk away. Glaeser hurt the community’s feelings, mainly because of the title of his City Journal essay (“Can Buffalo ever come back? Probably not—and government should stop bribing people to stay there”). But Glaeser’s point about bad investments, especially in infrastructure, was correct within limits (see below)—but his advice about building our human capital couldn’t be more sensible.

John Norquist has come a few times to talk about the waterfront, but we should be listening to him instead about schools as we figure out our own path. The late Jane Jacobs wrote a whole lot about how cheap, easy-to-get real estate in walkable neighborhoods is what fosters enterprise and energy and how cars are inimical to community. And Buffalo’s own Kathy Mecca gets it about the international gateway called Front Park: The international visitor should see green glades and a handsome neighborhood rather than a Duty Free store and an asthma-inducing truck plaza. In each case, the thinking is about people as well as this unique place, and not just about an abstract notion of commerce, or growth, or success, that has no context.

Imagining a new local context matters, especially now. Chances are actually getting better now than in the years before the 2008 financial crisis that human capital, once formed, might stay in place. Migration from region to region within the United States has fallen radically since the housing bubble burst. A sense of possibility is in the urban air all across the Rust Belt in part because the “greener pastures” of the Sun Belt, Las Vegas, and the mega-cities are not so green as they were, but also because the Rust Belt’s attributes—cheap housing, short commutes, universities and cultural institutions, plus fresh water in good supply and rural land nearby, seem suddenly as if they are potentially relevant.

That’s why some infrastructure plans should be shelved. The Peace Bridge, for example, should not be replaced. The Skyway should be left alone, too. Both function and will continue to function, if expensively. There is no defensible economic rationale for incurring hundreds of millions of dollars in debt to replace either. The necessary and difficult infrastructure fixes—cleaning our waterways, electrifying our public transportation, creating a region-wide high-speed internet zone as Kansas City has—are about tomorrow, not about reinforcing yesterday.

An economic consulting group in Pittsburgh endures ridicule for publishing its ranking of “up and coming” Rust Belt economies, but forges ahead anyway. Quiet discussions around here, though not occurring at the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, include the following logic: If the various demographic projections (Cornell, Wharton, US Census) really do concur that Erie County will shrink by 2025 to about 800,000 from today’s 920,000 souls, then what should we be doing differently with our transportation money, our school money, our governance money, our economic development money?

Removing obstacles to urbanism

Former Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist, author of The Wealth of Cities and now the head of the Congress for the New Urbanism, responded to the news of Holy Angels closing by pointing to the Milwaukee experience with (gasp) school vouchers. “We still have our Catholic schools and our Lutheran schools,” he writes. Norquist is a Democrat, a liberal, an Obama supporter, a relentless urbanist—and he says that the continuity of those parochial schools in Milwaukee helped convince the ethnic working- and middle-class to stay inside city limits rather than book to the Wisconsin versions of Amherst, Orchard Park, Cheektowaga. Milwaukee kept most of its population 641,000 in 1960 and is 598,000 today, compared to Buffalo having slipped from 500,000 to 275,000. And keeping the people made the incremental improvements to Milwaukee’s riverfront—including to its river’s water quality—a whole lot easier and also a near-immediate net-positive for the tax base.

Norquist’s voucher system won’t happen in New York State, but achieving an ethnically, racially, and economically diverse set of schoolkids in Buffalo is achieveable—and necessary. We have a beautifully-restored set of school buildings, thanks to the $1 billion-plus Join Schools Construction Program. We need a school-choice program that will get these buildings occupied with the dwindling supply of children in the region—probably via a regional school district administration that will allow suburban kids to use the bonanza in the urban core. This is a human-capital that is within our reach.

But there’s another organizational fix we need, and soon—the one that Assemblymember Sean Ryan and a couple of his State Senate colleagues just proposed.

Sean Ryan, Mark Grisanti, and George Maziarz are correct: The 10-member Public Bridge Authority of Buffalo and Fort Erie should go out of existence and leave the Peace Bridge to be managed by the transportation people in Ontario and New York. Why should Ryan, Grisanti, and Maziarz prevail? Here’s the answer, an answer that should be repeated as many times as possible to correct the misimpression of two decades or more of relentless propaganda: We don’t need a new Peace Bridge. We need a truck-free Peace Bridge.

As Kathy Mecca and the beleaguered residents of Busti Avenue, Columbus Parkway, and the rest of Prospect Hill know, the fume-belching diesel trucks that poison their air are in dwindling supply. Wall Street knows this, too: Were traffic on the Peace Bridge growing rather than shrinking, the number-crunchers who advise the tax-exempt bond market would advise the investment community to buy Peace Bridge Authority bonds so that that entity could build a grand new bridge and pay the bonds off with all the new revenue from all the new users. Wall Street won’t do so for the simple reason that traffic is shrinking, not growing. Ryan and Grisanti say that the Peace Bridge Authority is focused on building what it wants to build in a way that has little to do with the Western New York economy anyway. We do not need an unresponsive, secretive, monument-focused, run-amok Authority to squirrel away more funds, in addition to the $100 billion it already has on hand, and to expand the tax-exempt Duty Free business at the expense of the Olmsted neighborhood, in order to build a bridge that is not needed.

There’s an external physical reality that is already economically compelling and will become more so: Now is not the time for this community to commit its infrastructure dollars to another century of the fossil-fuel freight-transport paradigm—unless that commitment is to diesel-powered locomotives that are dozens of times more efficient. The great unaddressed international freight issue that awaits Ryan, Grisanti, Maziarz, Governor Andrew Cuomo, and the business community here is that other Niagara River crossing—the International Railroad Bridge.

Leave the Skyway

Nor do we need to tear the Skyway down. Today, it takes six minutes by car to get from Spot Coffee on Delaware and Chippewa to the Bell Slip on the Outer Harbor. Building anything other than a nicer public park there promises no economic return to the region—unless the land were once again to become an international port complex employing hundreds or thousands of climate refugees, political refugees, blow-ins, boomerangs, or grown children.

Thinking about this community in 2025, with its massive oversupply of housing and its undersupply of people, we should ask ourselves where it is we’d like to be, and who might like to be here with us. At the moment, the evidence is that we keep losing votes for the city: Of the 727 permits for single-family houses issued by municipalities in Erie County in 2012, the US Census reports precisely 42 were issued in Buffalo. Lancaster issued 128, Clarence and Hamburg each issued 111, Amherst issued 55, Grand Island 43. Even amidst population decline, we keep sprawling and adding more inventory. Spending hundreds of millions building new versions of old bridges won’t change that. The chores we need to tend to, Horatio, are not in our concrete, but in our selves.

Bruce Fisher is director of the the Center for Economic and Policy Studies at Buffalo State College. His recent book, Borderland: Essays from the US-Canada Divide, is available at bookstores or at www.sunypress.edu.

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