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Peace Bridge Access: 3 Ways of Looking at a Public Meeting

Second floor, D’Youville College Center. Twenty-two posters set up around room to describe Peace Bridge plans, 11 on each long wall. One attendant available to answer questions for every two posters. Some posters vague, such as one that essentially repeated that the public is able to provide feedback on the matter, saying so in different ways.

> by jacob knott

Comments on the scoping initial phase of the New York State Department of Transportation “Gateway” project to improve traffic access onto and off of the Peace Bridge plaza need to be in within a month. But public input on the project will be possible throughout the duration of the project, DOT officials assured citizenry at the project kickoff meeting Tuesday at D’Youville College.

The tentative project timeline is: draft environmental impact statement by this fall; public hearing this fall/winter; final environmental impact statement by this winter; and final decision on the project by spring 2014, then implementation.

DOT current ideas for the project are: a new ramp to move traffic from the plaza directly to the northbound I-90; a new accessway west of Front Park from Porter Avenue to the plaza; and eliminate Baird Drive, the road through Front Park along the east side of the park.

Scoping phase comments should be mailed to NYSDOT, 100 Seneca St., Buffalo, NY, 14203, or emailed to by July 11.

Applications were also handed out to anyone wishing to be a “consulting party” on historic preservation issues relative to the project. Written requests for consulting party designation can also be sent to the DOT, same mail or email address, by June 25, 2013.

Ironically, the aerial photo on a poster on historic preservation issues included the several National Register for Historical Preservation eligible properties demolished a few months ago by the Public Bridge Authority.

> by jack foran

The “public scoping meeting” held on Tuesday afternoon at D’Youville College by the New York State Department of Transportation (DOT) to announce a preliminary plan for its New York Gateway Connections Improvement Project to the US Peace Bridge plaza went smoothly and briskly. But almost nothing currently connected to the Peace Bridge operation seems unencumbered by controversies and political considerations. Around the edges of the swift and efficient DOT presentation, serious questions and discontents could be discerned.

The DOT plan is intended to improve two-way access between the bridge and the Niagara Thruway. According to Tom Donahue, a private consultant to the DOT and a project manager, the Gateway Plan would end vehicle congestion at the traffic signal just to the northeast of the American bridge plaza. A key feature of the proposal is a new approach to the bridge from the foot of Porter Avenue. Donahue and Special Assistant to the DOT’s Chief Engineer Dan Street told the audience of 50-60 during a 25-minute 4pm presentation (it was repeated at 6pm) that none of the plan was locked into place and that the purpose of “scoping” was to keep the public informed and to invite written responses to the proposals. A public hearing to allow people to ask questions and air objections will be scheduled for later this year.

But although these weren’t allowed Wednesday, there were plenty of comments to be heard around the explanatory graphics and texts displayed outside the meeting room. Kathleen Mecca, a bridge-neighborhood resident and leader, called the DOT’s plan “magical thinking.” Former state senator and Buffalo Common Council member Alfred Coppola, long a strong critic of the Peace Bridge Authority operation and New York State’s response to traffic and air quality problems from bridge traffic, said it was likely that the project would just move the congestion from the signal to elsewhere in the vicinity. “Trucks will be backed up on the Thruway or at the foot of Porter Avenue,” he said.

Coppola pointed to a survey done about four years ago by four area school principals that found more than 600 cases of respiratory illness among the schools’ students. Coppola and others attribute the health problems to the diesel truck emissions from engines idling at customs and in traffic backups.

A DOT Gateway project handout listed five “Primary Environmental Considerations” attached to it. The first was “Air Quality,” the third “Socioeconomics and Economic Justice Issues.” A survey several years ago of the Lower West Side neighborhoods near the bridge and Thruway conducted by University at Buffalo professor Jamson L. Lwebuya-Mukasa found a large incidence of illness in these economically disadvantaged areas, problems he associated with the trucks at the bridge and on the Thruway and city streets. Both Coppola and Mecca predicted legal challenges to Gateway.

Mecca questioned the claims of serious congestion at the traffic signal. “Where are the studies that demonstrate the congestion?” she asked rhetorically. “The only congestion at the bridge is caused by customs inspections.”

DOT project manager Maria Lehman told Artvoice that the $22 million state and federal project funding was already secured, and all the property required was already owned by the state. But one well-connected local Democratic Party figure at the meeting speculated that Governor Andrew M. Cuomo’s bitter feud with the Canadian members of the bridge authority, and his tacit approval of a bill in the state legislature that would abolish it, could impact the Gateway project anyway. This person, speaking anonymously, noted US Senator Charles Schumer and Buffalo Congressman Brian Higgins’s apparent concern that the escalating dispute could derail a binational proposed plan to transfer primary customs truck inspection to Canada in the interest of reducing bridge congestion. If this conflict continues, he said, it could be a mistake to assume Schumer and Higgins would not intervene in Washington, where Federal Highway Authority approval is needed for Gateway, in order to get Cuomo to back down.

> by george sax

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