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A Peaceful Peace Bridge DIscourse

Maybe the dialogue at the Conference on the Environment last week between Peace Bridge and community representatives will usher in a new era of cooperation and amicable relations. The two sides talked about working together on common problems against a common enemy.

Kathy Mecca, president of the Niagara Gateway Columbus Park Association, talked about “a change in the conversation” with the Public Bridge Authority. “Now we’ve come to understand,” she said, that many previous matters of contention between the two sides are “not controlled by the PBA, but by many, many state and federal agencies.”

“It’s a problem, we recognize it. We need to engage with the community,” Ron Rienas, PBA general manager, said. “More importantly, we need the community to help us engage with the federal government” on numerous issues—regulatory issues, labor issues, staffing levels of bridge customs officials—that affect bridge traffic movement. “We don’t control these things,” he said.

Rienas described programs the PBA has implemented to speed up truck traffic and thus reduce air pollutant emissions impacting the neighborhood, such as Trade Act requirements for advance notification and documentation from truckers planning to cross, and the FAST program for commercial vehicles, similar to the NEXUS program for cars. And a program in the works for years and scheduled to be implemented next year to move truck inspections and customs processing to the Canadian side. He also talked about regulatory procedures in place that ought to be changed, for example, how customs officials often end up having to collect a commercial traffic user fee (separate from the basic bridge toll), further holding up truck traffic movement.

On the question of long-range alternative ways to move commercial traffic across the Niagara Frontier border, neither side had much of an answer. “It’s not my responsibility,” Mecca said. “It’s the federal government that has to come up with a solution.” She suggested routing more or all truck traffic across the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge. A Lewiston woman in the audience questioned that idea. Rienas said on the topic, “The PBA doesn’t establish the market…it’s the industry and state and federal planners who decide where and how traffic is routed.” (An issue, it seemed, on which the PBA and community could work together to persuade elected officials, who might then influence the planning. Some sort of more efficient and less air pollution productive rail-based alternative could surely be implemented if there was sufficient public pressure for it.)

Amid the aura of general amicability at the session, differences of outlook and opinion were downplayed for the moment, but not ignored. Mecca raised the sore point for the community of the presence of a Duty Free store currently on the bridge plaza but likely to be moved to an adjacent area the PBA acquired and is renovating, after demolishing a number of historic structures homes that once occupied the area.

On the core environmental issue of diesel emissions associated with high asthma levels and other health effects among community members, Rienas said: “It’s clearly not as much of an issue” as a decade or so ago, prior to improved diesel fuel standards for sulfur and other air contaminants. He showed a brief video in which the chair of the California Air Resources Board proclaimed 90 percent reductions in diesel emissions of nitrous oxide and fine particles following implementation of the new standards.

Mecca’s response: “Less bad air is not a solution. We want clean air.”

Peace Bridge community member Michael Herbold questioned the good faith of the PBA based on its failure to provide a thorough environmental impact statement on recent and current work relative to the prospective relocation of the Duty Free store. Rienas responded that the PBA did provide a thorough EIS on the project, as determined by a federal judge in a court case on the matter. (Neighborhood residents did not universally share the judge’s opinion on the matter.) On the other hand, Rienas showed considerable good faith in sitting quietly and patiently through an extended excerpt from a video on the Peace Bridge matter he has previously criticized regarding many of its factual assertions, as well as on journalistic grounds, for its apparent total disinterest in the PBA perspective on any aspect of the complex bridge matter.

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