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Who Shrank the Peace Bridge?
by Bruce Jackson
How a Bird-Brained Notion Has Put Us in the Weeds Again
Three questions have driven the Peace Bridge expansion project since it began more than a decade ago:
■ Does the Buffalo-Fort Erie bridge corridor need more traffic lanes?
■ If there is a new bridge, what kind of bridge shall it be?
■ If there is a new bridge, what shall be its plaza configurations on the American and Canadian sides?
The first question was posed and answered in the affirmative by the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority. The PBA has never found a reason to change that answer. Passenger traffic is down from a few years ago but, says the PBA, once the dollar rebounds, gas prices decline, and crossing the border is less threatening than it is now, the cars will return. (Well—at least someone is optimistic about the future of the US.)Because of the complex laws and agreements of the four jurisdictions that created and empower the PBA (New York, the United States, Ontario, and Canada), the governments of Buffalo and Fort Erie and the citizens of those two communities were never part of that decision-making process, nor will they be in the future.
The third question has had several answers the past few years. Shared border management, a plan that would have shifted almost all US Government bridge functions to the Canadian side, was announced as ready to go in 2004. The primary result of shared border management in Buffalo would have been a vastly reduced plaza footprint and simplified traffic patterns. But shared border management died in its cradle, in part because of hardening of the border on the US side by the Bush administration and fear of the American rendition program on the Canadian side.
In the past few years, the PBA made many plaza improvements that helped speed up traffic flow. Recently, it came up with a new plaza configuration that required purchase or condemnation of many residences in the area adjacent to the current plaza. That met with vigorous opposition from Columbus Park residents anxious to keep their homes and preserve their neighborhood. The PBA’s plaza plan has been modified significantly, but neighborhood opposition continues.
The middle question—what kind of bridge shall it be?—seemed to have been answered by the PBA’s Bridge Design Selection Jury in December 2005. The jury considered 31 bridge concepts, examined 16 of them in detail, and came up with six possibilities, five of them cable-stay bridges, one a triple-arch bridge. Their favorite among the six possibilities was a two-pylon, cable-stay signature bridge designed by the Swiss bridge architect Christian Menn. That design became the heart of the PBA’s draft environmental impact study (DEIS) published last September.
Attack of the bird people
On November 20, 2007, Timothy E. Wanamaker, director of Buffalo’s Office of Strategic Planning, responded to the DEIS with a whole bunch of questions, one of which would take on particular resonance a few months later when it was expanded upon by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC): what about the increased dangers the bridge would pose to migrating birds, the common tern, and Bonaparte gulls? Wanamaker’s letter devotes more space to dangers to birds possibly posed by the Menn bridge than anything else. “One can conclude from reading the DEIS,” he writes, “that the primary way to mitigate adverse impacts to migrating and resident birds is to minimize the profile of the companion bridge.”
That is to say: You’ll kill fewer birds if you go with a shorter bridge.
An odd simple-minded science seems to undergird his argument. “Both species,” Wanamaker writes, “were observed during the avian study to barely clear the bridge deck when flying over.”
Indeed. And my foot, when climbing a stairway, barely clears the step as I ascend, and my butt barely clears the seat as I get into my car. So what? What is the need for extra clearance? If the step or seat were higher my foot or ass would be higher. Is there any reason to think a bird would rather fly into the side of a bridge that fly a little higher and miss it?
Why would Byron Brown’s chief planner pose what he had to know were unanswerable questions? Was City Hall trying to scuttle or muddle the bridge project? That seems unlikely, knowing Brown’s passion for ribbon-cutting photos. Was it stupidity and incompetence? Was it letter writing on autopilot? Was it deep concern for the birds?
Whether spurred on by Wanamaker’s letter on quite on their own, USFWS and NYSDEC came up with a bunch of dazzling bird questions (some of them using the same language as one another and as Wanamaker) they said should be answered before the project went forward.
Some of those questions would require one or two years of round-the-clock radar monitoring of the area around the current Peace Bridge. Some of them could never be answered unless the Menn bridge were built. Some could never be answered at all: They required the PBA to prove a negative, which can’t be done. Some of them focussed on the common tern and the emerald shiner, bird and fish species the letters said were endangered or threatened that are, in fact, on no federal endangered or threatened list. Some speculated about unknown bird species making undetected trips in the gloom of night.
“In Melbourne Florida,” notes one of the letters, “a very tall bridge presented a fatal obstacle to bird flight, and studies from 1989 to 1992 found 11 Brown Pelicans, 84 Royal Terns, 2 Sandwich Terns and 2 Black Skimmers were hit and killed by vehicles on the Bridge. Undoubtedly birds hit the bridge as well, however these would not have been recoverable…The Common Terns, Double-crested Cormorants, Black-crowned Night Herons, and Great-Blue Herons could easily have the same problems with bridge height that the birds encountered with the bridge in Melbourne, Florida.”
But by their own admission there is no evidence at all of bridge height being an issue in Melbourne, Florida. All the dead birds, in that area with vastly more bird traffic than Buffalo, were road kill—birds that landed on the bridge and were walking around when a car or truck came along. That could happen with a bridge of any height, or just a road near a waterway. The letter speculated that birds killed by collision with the bridge fell into the water, so no one ever knew about them. How can the PBA possibly respond to that?
All of the reports refer to Menn’s bridge as 590 feet, as if it were 590 feet high from shore to shore. But it’s only 590 feet high at the top of the pylons. Between the pylons, it’s not much higher than the current bridge. Watch birds fly over any cable stay bridge: Some go over the pylons, some fly between them. If 590 feet is an issue (none of the birds mentioned is incapable of flying above 590 feet), why wouldn’t the birds fly between the pylons, as they do everywhere else? (If the 590-foot rule obtained, we wouldn’t have the Golden Gate Bridge, Verrazano-Narrows Bridge or George Washington Bridge, all of which are taller and are in busier bird routes.)
Spend an afternoon searching Google for reports of birds flying into the wires of cable-stay bridges and you’ll come up empty. When Hong Kong wanted to build a new bridge, they did a search of 1,500 bridge projects and found nothing. None of the dozens of cable-stay bridges built in the US in recent years have resulted in any significant bird homicides.
So what’s all the worrying about? The questions are all cast in terms of “might” and “could” and “possibly.” Yeah, there’s always room for “might” and “could” and “possibly”; but there’s also a huge amount of empirical evidence to show that none of it is the least bit likely.
Nonetheless, the Federal Highway Administration, the lead agency for the environmental study, hence the agency that would have the power to issue the document that would let construction begin—the record of decision—responded to all those agency questions with a reiteration of those hypothetical questions of its own, and a suggestion that the PBA consider the triple arch design.
The PBA response
None of the federal or state agencies said the Menn design was dead, but since the questions they all posed about it were either unanswerable without building the bridge or without several years of study, at the end of which everything might be back where everything is now, the PBA decided to dump the Menn design and opt for the far less interesting and much shorter triple-arch bridge.
The National Environmental Policy Act, said Ron Rienas, Peace Bridge General Manager, “basically by law requires you to do three things. It requires you to first try and avoid adverse impacts. If you can’t avoid them, then you must try to minimize them. And if you can’t minimize them, then you must mitigate them. And it must be done with achieving the purpose and need of your project. The purpose and need of our project is to make the border function better, alleviate border congestion, do the new plaza, and add additional lane capacity. What they have come back to us and said is, to fulfill the purpose and need of your project, you don’t have to build a bridge that has an adverse impact as has been spelled out by all the commenting agencies…If we had our druthers, yeah, absolutely: it would be a lot easier for us to do the two-tower, cable-stay bridge. But there’s no point in us beating our heads against a wall if it’s not going to be permitted. That simply makes no sense.”
It appears that the one local politician who knew about the FHWA’s objections early was Congressman Brian Higgins. The PBA told him about it because the Peace Bridge lies in his district. US Senators Charles Schumer and Hillary Clinton and US Representatives Louise Slaughter and Tom Reynolds seem to have learned about it only when it broke in the newspapers last week.
Higgins wrote to the FHWA in February. His letter didn’t address any of the real problems; he just called them names and carried on about things no one had said: “Your decision to block the Menn design on the basis of some totally unproven notion that ducks and hawks and falcons will smash into the wires and come crashing down to the roadway in some significant numbers would be laughable were its consequences not so potentially dire.”
The main issue, he said, was Buffalo’s lousy economy versus Toronto’s thriving economy.
How could FHWA respond to that sarcasm and irrelevance? Did Higgins think that would undo the agencies’ bird Prufrockery? Or was he doing his best to keep this from going public until it was a done deal? Why didn’t he copy the other members of the New York delegation on his FHWA letter? Why did he not tell the press about his FHWA letter? He tells the press about everything else.
Higgins is notorious for trying to shut down debate, close off conversation, avoid discussion, and for moving to start of construction, with all the photo ops and credit-taking such moments provide. He is also very much dependent on contributions from construction trade unions. Since 1989, he has received $3,257,736 in campaign contributions, of which $1,425,680 came from PACs. $621,790 of Higgins’s PAC money came from labor organizations; they constitute his largest contributor by far.
On April 28, after Schumer announced he was setting up a meeting with FHWA and other federal officials, Higgins issued a press release with a letter saying he was requesting a meeting with the same officials. Since he was included in Schumer’s invitation, it’s not clear why he sent out his own, unless it’s to give the impression that he’s taking the lead on this mess which he’s thus far kept to himself. “It is my understanding,” he wrote, “that Senator Schumer has requested a meeting along similar lines; out of respect for everyone’s time and in the interest of preventing the needless duplication of efforts, I would not object to holding a single meeting on this matter.” What a smug, self-important ass.
The Buffalo News has a surprising conversion
Ten years ago the Buffalo News was taking part in a fake design charette in which the Public Bridge Authority was presumably considering public input on bridge design and plaza configuration. It later turned out that the PBA had long before decided what kind of bridge it was going to build and what kind of plaza it was going to have. In one editorial after another, the News told us the ugly steel twin span was the best deal we were going to get so we should lie back and take it, and the Buffalo-Niagara Partnership, mainly through its CEO Andrew Rudnick, pushed relentlessly for the twin span. Were it not for the Margaret L. Wendt Foundation and the Community Foundation, the persistence of the New Millennium Group, and the courage of Judge Eugene Fahey, the PBA, the Buffalo News and the Buffalo-Niagara Partnership would have gotten away with it.
But that was then and this is now. Now the PBA has public meetings about design. Now, Andrew Rudnick and the Partnership are silent on the bridge and plaza. Either they got what they want, they got bored, or they’re distracted with some other mischief.
And now the Buffalo News has had an astonishing conversion. Its Saturday editorial page was devoted to a single topic: getting authorities to let the city have the Christian Menn double-pylon, cable-stay bridge rather than squooshing everything down to the functional, but not very interesting triple-arch bridge. Half the page was a graphic of the Menn design with a line from signature bridge advocate Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan: “Think of the glory.” The editorial’s title is “It’s not too late for a signature bridge.” The brief text of the editorial condemns the agencies’ decision to junk the signature bridge and argues for a political reversal. Below the editorial are photos and contact information for the region’s five elected federal representatives.
Even editorial cartoonist Adam Zyglis, whose work is primarily gross caricature, seems to have gotten the point: His color cartoon is titled “For the Birds” and shows a grinning, balding, pointy-shoe, suit-wearing man with a clip-on badge saying “Feds” ripping up sheets of paper titled “Years of peace bridge plans” and feeding them to pigeons. In the background are the Niagara River and the current Peace Bridge. It lacks subtlety or wit, but for the usually sneering and heavy-handed Zyglis it’s pretty good.
Turning it around
Can it be turned around? Sure. Remember Don Corleone’s line in Godfather II: “If history has taught us anything, it is that anyone can be killed.” Just change two words and you’ve got government at work: “Anything can be fixed.”
Chuck Schumer is cranked up about this. After a year of being absent from the Peace Bridge scene almost entirely, he’s now all over it. He’s been firing off press releases, calling meetings, having conferences. Today, he’s got a meeting at his office with officials of the various agencies involved. New York Gocernor David Paterson and Brian Higgins will be there. (On Wednesday, Paterson announced his support for Menn’s signature bridge.) He’s gotten Hillary Clinton to express something almost like interest in the current situation, which she’s hardly ever done before.
The question is, if Schumer gets the agencies to ratchet down the hysteria, and if FHWA then goes ahead and issues the record of decision permitting construction of the Christian Menn design, will the PBA want to go with it?
They’re worried about studies and lawsuits that will tie the project in knots forever. “Believe me,” Ron Rienas said a few days ago, “we want to do the two-tower, cable-stay bridge. If we could do it, we would do it. Where do we go from here? We’ll have to see how the FHWA responds to the comments I’m sure they’re hearing now from the elected folks. I don’t want to wait two or three more years to have this project perhaps end up exactly where we are now.
“Shared border management: there’s a perfect example. Shared border management was announced in December 2004 with all kinds of fanfare and all kinds of political pressure to get it done, right from the get-go. Every elected official was pushing to get that done, to make that a legal alternative. Where did that get us? Two and a half years later, we’re back to square one on that issue. How frustrating is that? And I fear that the same thing will happen all over again. We will have two and a half years of bird analysis and we’ll be right where we are today, with another two and a half years gone by.”
It’s not just the studies that might get done but not advance anything PBA officials worry about. It’s also the lawsuits:
“If the elected officials were to be successful in getting the agencies to relax their requirements and to say, ‘We think it’s okay, you can do the two-tower, cable-stay bridge,’ we all know that this project is going to end up in court. So if I’m a plaintiff wanting to come to court, what do I do? I simply introduce the letters from all the agencies. They’re public, they’re on the record. I simply say that the Peace Bridge didn’t follow the NEPA process because they continued to pursue a bridge that the agencies have in writing [indicated] has an adverse impact compared to a lower bridge. So as much as we would like to do that, we can’t build something that we can’t get a permit for, and even if we were to get a permit for it, a record of decision for it, that doesn’t mean that we’re not going to be sued on the very environmental grounds that we changed the design for. We simply can’t win that argument.”
If the Menn design is to go up, Schumer’s task isn’t just to get the agencies to back off the unanswerable questions. He’s also got to get them to do it in a way that gives the PBA some confidence that they won’t be held accountable for and tied up by the impossible questions anyway.
The PBA’s position, which has never changed well over a decade, is that the transportation system needs more capacity at this crossing and they’ll do whatever they need to do to get it.
Everything else has changed. The way they deal with the public has changed, their design for the plaza has changed, their designs for the bridge have changed. But their underlying position has remained constant. If they can get a grand bridge here, they’ll be happy to have a grand bridge here; but if a workaday bridge is all they can get, they’ll go with that because bridge aesthetics and Buffalo’s feelings are secondary issues for them. They’re primary for us, but not for them.
Faulting them because they don’t put Buffalo’s needs and concerns first misses the point: That’s not their job and never has been. It’s our job. For a long time we ignored it, which is why things got into such a sorry state in the late 1990s.
Lately we haven’t been ignoring it, which is why the Buffalo News finally has an editorial page that gets the point from top to bottom, and why residents of the Columbus Park area have organized and have been fighting with such terrific energy and tenacity, and why now even Brian Higgins is working and playing well with others.
Bruce Jackson teaches at UB. His most recent books are The Story Is True: The Art and Meaning of Telling Stories (Temple University Press) and Cummins Wide: Photographs from the Arkansas Penitentiary (Center for Documentary Studies). The previous 91 articles in this series are online at http://buffaloreport.com/allbridge.html.blog comments powered by Disqus
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