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Air Quality and the Peace Bridge

The American Lung Association’s “State of the Air 2010” report confirms what residents living near the Peace Bridge have long suspected: Long-term exposure to exhaust from heavy traffic contributes to higher risks for heart attack, allergies, lung cancer, asthma attacks, premature births, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, etc.

Despite these known risks, none of Western New York’s leaders appears willing to objectively assess and mitigate the adverse health impacts of traffic emissions on human health. Not our federal or local officials. Not the governmental agencies that sponsor specific highway and bridge projects.

The Greater Buffalo-Niagara Regional Transportation Council (GBNRTC) must step forward and assume a leadership role in addressing this critical issue. It serves as Western New York’s metropolitan planning agency, sharing responsibility with the State of New York for a comprehensive, continuous, and cooperative transportation planning process for the Buffalo-Niagara area. It is obliged to “not only mitigate adverse environmental impacts but also protect, enhance and restore the environment.”

According to GBNRTC, its five-year transportation improvement program would result in reductions in overall transportation-related emissions in Western New York. But the agency’s director, Hal Morse, frankly admitted at a recent public forum that the GBNRTC relies on the individual project sponsors to protect and enhance the environment by responsibly performing the project-specific environmental review mandated under federal and state laws. As the Peace Bridge project demonstrates, that reliance is not warranted.

The Peace Bridge sponsors list a variety of objectives to justify the project—from improving border security and increasing bridge capacity to safely accommodating bike and pedestrian traffic. The goal of eliminating adverse health impacts is nowhere to be found. Dr. Jamson Lwebuga-Mukasa, a noted public health research scientist, presented research showing that heavy traffic at the Peace Bridge is linked to poor respiratory health on the West Side of Buffalo, recommending that truck traffic be excluded from the Peace Bridge. His findings were summarily rejected by the Peace Bridge consultants “since his research is independent of the Project Consultant Team.”

Vague language in literature prepared by Peace Bridge sponsors should have placed the GBNRTC on notice that no true effort was being made to eliminate traffic-related impacts on human health. The public was merely told that predictions regarding airborne pollutants “suggest[ed]…a beneficial contribution to quality of health in the neighborhood surrounding the Peace Bridge.” In fact, no attempt was made by the sponsoring agencies to accurately assess and predict project-specific health impacts. And the proposed alternatives that could have significantly reduced the negative impacts on the West Side neighborhood were eliminated from consideration long before the supposed environmental assessment was conducted.

GBNRTC created a bicycle/pedestrian subcommittee to assure that the concerns of bicyclists and walkers weren’t lost in the shuffle. It is time for Western New York’s metropolitan planning agency to create a subcommittee that would focus its attention on assessing and eliminating traffic-related impacts on human health.

Arthur J. Giacalone, East Aurora

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