Rethinking the Peace Bridge Debate
by Michael I. Niman Buffalo Beat, December 21, 2000
Twinspan, Superspan, Signature Bridge, whatever your preference — after years of arguing we’re back at the starting point. There is no plan. Only in Buffalo is such nonsense cause for celebration.
But inaction truly is cause for celebration. Consider the fact that more or less for the last 50 or so years our civic leaders have managed to accrue an almost perfect track record, making the worse possible choice whenever faced with a decision. Their legacy leaves us with a university and a NFL football stadium relocated from the city to the suburbs at taxpayer expense, expressways slashing urban neighborhoods and parks apart and bleeding them dry, a landmark art deco train station and office tower stripped to the bone, a half-built subway system that doesn’t go anywhere and a slew of administrative policies that result in a metropolitan area with downtown cut off from it’s residential tax base in the suburbs. Given this history, how can we not celebrate inaction?
There is something else to celebrate here. That is the fact that the people are finally emerging as a power to reckon with in civic planning. This is not a defeat for the steel span crowd nor is it a victory for the Signature Spanners. It’s just a timeout to come together and figure out how not to botch this opportunity — how not to burden future generations with a senseless and unworkable infrastructure as our predecessors have done to us.
In short, we need to think out of the envelope. We need to broaden the debate beyond Twin verses Signature Spans. We need to question the very notion that we need a new or expanded bridge.
First, I never quite caught on to the point as to why having over 6,000 tractor trailer trucks idling at customs and then passing through our community is good for us. Dr. Michael Merrill, writing for The Buffalo News, eloquently raised the specter of a connection between this truck traffic and the asthma cluster that is emerging in adjacent neighborhoods. Diesel exhaust is also a suspected carcinogen. From a public health perspective putting a major truck inspection center in the middle of a densely populated residential neighborhood is lunacy. If the benefit is a few customs brokerage jobs, the cost is far too high.
We’re also all too familiar with the regular flow of television news images showing jack-knifed trucks or loose coils of steel horrendously tangled with cars on highways in and around Buffalo. Put simply, big trucks and little cars are a nasty mix. Increased truck traffic means increased traffic fatalities. Again, from a public safety perspective, inviting truck traffic is plain stupid.
While we’re on the topic of truck traffic, let’s revisit our November snowstorm. It wasn’t just the snow that shut the city down — much if not most of it fell after traffic ground to a halt. What we had was region-wide traffic gridlock. Trucks losing control and jack-knifing on slippery roads were a major factor in closing local highways. With local highways closed, trucks took to the streets, getting stuck on or under snow covered bridges, choking shut major streets such as Bailey Avenue and Niagara Street. Once stuck, these trucks could not be easily moved out of the way of traffic. So remind me again, why do we need them here?
There are alternative plans, but they are equally flawed. The Detroit International Bridge Commission wants to set up shop in Buffalo, building a new bridge upriver near the International Railroad Bridge at Squaw Island. Like the Peace Bridge, the bridge proposed by the Detroit company will place both the new inspection plaza and truck traffic into the middle of a densely populated urban neighborhood near Amherst Street. Highway connections on the Canadian side would tear through the heart of Fort Erie with the whole mess detracting from the historic 127 year old railroad bridge.
Moving further north up the river, in 1990 the Niagara Falls Bridge Commission proposed as part of a 30 year operating plan, that they study the feasibility of adding a truck deck to their 103 year old Whirlpool Bridge. Like the two Buffalo proposals, this plan would place noxious truck traffic right smack into another densely populated North End and Deveaux neighborhoods of City of Niagara Falls. For this scheme to work, a new highway would need to built be along railroad right-of-ways cutting across the City of Niagara Falls, connecting the bridge to Intestate 190. Like their counterparts in Buffalo, some civic leaders in Niagara Falls think reigning such destruction upon themselves would somehow benefit their flailing economy. Tom Garlock, the newly hired General Manager of the Niagara Falls Bridge Commission, speaking in an interview with Buffalo Beat, however, states that there is currently no plan on the table to move ahead with the Whirlpool Bridge project. The Buffalo media, he explains, unearthed the old plan while covering the Peace Bridge controversy.
Both plans also require turning railroad right-of-ways into truck routes, thus locking US/Canadian trade into a dependence on an inefficient, dirty and hopefully soon to be outmoded system of truck transport as opposed to rail transport.
The desire to attract traffic is not really about economics. It’s about status. The Detroit International Bridge Company boasts that the International Bridge in Detroit has surpassed Buffalo’s Peace Bridge in traffic and is now the main crossing between the US and Canada. Whoopie! Many knuckleheads in Western New York now sufferening through a dismal football season probably want to regain championship status for our river crossing. It’s the same Zeitgeist that produces the erroneous boast that Amherst is a world class municipality because traffic volume at Sheridan Drive and Niagara Falls Boulevard is second in New York State only to Times Square.
I must admit that I’m at a loss to understand the benefit of attracting heavy truck traffic to transit through our neighborhoods. Other cities have moved in the opposite direction, severely restricting even locally destined truck traffic which in sections of New York City, for example, may only roll during nighttime hours.
To solve current and future traffic problems on the Peace Bridge, we need to honestly evaluate the problem. Even though Peace Bridge traffic has increased by 70% during the 1990s, with rare exception, the current traffic predicament stems not from a shortage of bridge lanes, but from a shortage of customs officers. On most days, traffic controllers use one lane of the bridge, usually an eastbound lane, as a queue for trucks waiting to clear customs. In essence, the bridge is mis-utilized as a parking ramp. If traffic actually moved, the current three lane bridge should be able to effectively handle it. Building a six lane Signature Span or Twin Span without a commitment from US and Canadian customs officials to increase their capacity, or at the very least, staff their existing booths, would be futile, resulting in Signature or Twin parking ramps. On the other hand, beefing up customs now would demonstrate the reality that we might not need to incur the expense of a new bridge.
Increasing customs capabilities does not, however, address the destructive impact international truck traffic is having on our community — it would just serve to speed this traffic from the bridge to our streets and highways.
Thinking regionally, the most logical solution would be to ban truck traffic at the Peace Bridge and direct it and to the four lane Lewiston-Queenston bridge, located in a more sparsely populated area between the American and Canadian power reservoirs. According to reports released by the Niagara Falls Area Chamber of Commerce, traffic on the Lewiston Queenston Bridge is actually declining.
Customs plazas, truck inspection facilities and supporting infrastructure could be built on Ontario Hydro and New York State Power Authority lands adjacent to the reservoirs and power canals on both sides of the border. There is also ample vacant land on the Canadian side adjacent to Highway 405 and Portage Road. On the American Side there is a vacant brownfield on the north shore of the "Fore Bay" between the two power dams. The new plaza might also encroach upon the Niagara Falls County Club. While it would be prudent to avoid such an exercise of eminent domain, building on a golf course is still a far cry better than demolishing the Episcopal Home and surrounding homes and public parkland, as called for in the Buffalo Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority’s (better known by the misnomer "Peace Bridge Authority") Twin Span proposal.
The Lewiston Queenston truck inspection stations would sit atop the Niagara Escarpment with prevailing winds carrying diesel exhaust off of the escarpment at the same elevation as a tall smokestack. While still posing a public health problem, this scenario would be advantageous to other plans on the table which call for releasing the same emissions at ground level in a densely populated city.
If future car and truck traffic overwhelmed the capacity of the 1,600 foot long Lewiston Queenston Bridge, it could be twinned or replaced for a cost far less than that of the 5,800 foot long Peace Bridge.
The Niagara Falls Bridge Commission’s Tom Garlock says that his agency will not act unilaterally, but is committed to developing a region-wide river crossing plan in cooperation with the Buffalo Fort Erie Public Bridge Commission. His organization is open, however, to developing an international truck crossing at the Lewiston Queenston Bridge if a consensus emerges calling for such a facility.
Whatever plan is finally adopted, local toll and tax payers should not have to bear the responsibility to pay for it. Increased truck traffic is a byproduct of international trade policies that have cost Western New York jobs while providing few benefits. It is wrong to expect the people of this economically distressed region to bear the brunt of the responsibility to build a new bridge to accommodate what is essentially on a macroeconomic level, a flow of Canadian jobs slipping south to Mexico. And it is wrong to expect us to spend hours on congested bridges, to dodge dangerous trucks on our highways and to breath clouds of diesel exhaust, all in the name of international trade.
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