BUFFALO NY/FORT ERIE ONT:War at Peace Bridge over Signature vs Utility Span

April 14, 1999
By Peter Samuel

BUFFALO NY/FORT ERIE ONT:War at Peace Bridge over Signature vs Utility Span

Originally published in issue 38 of Tollroads Newsletter, which came out in Apr 1999.

Page:11

Subjects:opposition signature bridge

Facilities:Peace Bridge

Agencies:Peace Bridge Authority Buffalo & Fort Eria PBA BFEPBA

Locations:NY Buffalo

A tumultuous political war continues over expansion of the Peace Bridge, the major New York state link to Ontario, Canada’s largest province. Everyone wants this important US-Canadian border crossing expanded. The 3-lane toll bridge is already congested. Tourism and NAFTA trade promise steadily growing traffic. The fight is over the bridge authority’s plan for a second or companion span to the existing 1927 bridge versus a grand new bridge and demolition of the old one – companion bridge versus signature bridge, pragmatists versus monumentalists.

Leading the pragmatists is the bridge’s owner, the Peace Bridge Authority (known as the PBA though formally it is the Buffalo & Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority). PBA is jointly owned by the Canadian and New York State governments and it has always prided itself on never having cost taxpayers of Canada or New York a cent, having always raised money for improvements from toll supported bonds. It has spent 6 years and over $10m on studies, consultation, design and permitting. Last July it got the unanimous support of its board to get tenders for construction of the companion span. It has selected a builder, has all its permits and is ready to sell $90m of bonds, hoping to start construction this summer for completion mid-2002.

The PBA second span continues to have strong support on the Canadian side but on the US side they’ve got heap of senior officials against them and for the signature span – the Buffalo mayor, the Erie Co chief exec, the city council, the county board, the two US senators for New York, the state Attorney-General, a heap of other politicians, and an impressive collection of city business and civic groups. All of these want the PBA to delay, if not scrap, plans for construction of the companion span, and to build a grand new self-contained bridge.

And the monumentalists are not just talking. The city has already revoked an easement permit that it had previously granted for the second span to be built over city roads, and threatens to join in law suits charging the PBA failed to adhere to properly observe environmental impact and public consultation requirements under federal law (NIPA). Elliot Spitzer, the state Attorney-General asked the US Coast Guard to deny the PBA its navigation clearance, joining US senators Moynihan and Schumer. He also appointed a signature span supporter to fill a vacant position on the board. Other civic groups are threatening to sue and politicans to interevene. Dununciations of the PBA fill the media. Slick websites and PR people extol the single span plan and help organize against the PBA.

As we go to press the PBA won a big one with the US Coast Guard over enviro permitting. The head of the Coast Guard has issued the permit and tacitly rebuked the state attorney-general and other politicians, saying that under the law the Coast Guard can only rule on whether the proposed span provides for reasonable navigation and on whether the authority has complied with environmental laws. The head of the USCG wrote: “the bridge project applicant has demonstrated that the bridge addition will provide for the reasonable needs of navigation and that all applicable environmental requirements have been met.” (James Loy 4/28)

PBA officials say that when they started out on the expansion project, they thought there would be strong opposition to demolishing the old bridge. It isn’t on any historic register, though they say it is eligible and that anyone who wanted to stop it being demolished would have little trouble getting it formally registered. The PBA says that public opinion surveys showed over 80% of the public on the Canadian side and over 70% on the US side wanted the old bridge kept.

They say that the old bridge has a lot of useful life left in it, though it needs redecking and some strengthening – about $20m work.

“We think the second span is the only feasible practical alternative, and so far it has been the clear directive of the board that we pursue that,” says Stephen Mayer, the senior US official of the PBA. Mayer says a new large span would cost about $150m against the companion span’s $90m. But the signature span would also need a new toll, customs and immigration plaza. An area a couple of blocks north would land the bridge plonk in the middle of an American Indian burial ground on the Canadian west bank and wipe out 150 houses of a residential area on the US side. The companion span by contrast, built immediately south of the existing span fits the existing border and toll plazas and doesn’t disturb any local landowners.

Mayer says extra bridge capacity is needed now, and he fears any reconsideration will just waste time and money because it won’t be possible to gain agreement on a location for a new grand span, or to find the money to build it.

“Small-minded bureaucrat,” say the advocates of the new span of Mayer. Read some of their rhetoric from the peacebridgevote.com website: “Envision two-miles of waterfront park extending from the Buffalo River onward to the Niagara. Imagine activity and vibrancy along Niagara Street. Southward, McKinley Monument signals action at the Convention Center, downtown offices and Entertainment District. To the North, a grand gateway to Canada symbolizes our International City and our global aspirations. Imagine also a spectacular bridge, powerfully spanning the Niagara River between two great nations – friends, allies and trading partners for over 150 years. This is the symbol that Peace Works – evidence that a better way can be found when nations choose to get along... Buffalo should seize this chance to build a majestic gateway between two great nations. Since an ideal gateway could be built with less money, less time and less disruption than twinning and re-decking the existing bridge, we should have a majestic gateway!”

This stuff has captured the imagination of young professionals, all the leading politicians, much of the local media, major business groups. We spoke at length to Bill Banas, director of the New Millenium Group, a collection of young professionals and businesspeople, deeply involved in civic improvement, that have been instrumental in generating a lot of the support for the signature span. He’s a computer software writer, quietly spoken, reasonable. He’s had the WASHINGTON POST, NEW YORK TIMES and TIME magazine there this week. He’s confident the PBA is politically isolated. The PBA just went through the motions of consultation and examining alternatives and never seriously looked at the signature span proposal, he says.

Another cause for local protest is that the existing and new bridge bisects the city’s riverfront Front Park designed by famous landscaper Frederick Law Olmstead. If the new bridge were built a block and a half further north, Banas says, it would be out of the park and could have connections directly into city surface streets via Niagara Street as well as into I-190 with modern higher speed ramps.

He insists that a signature span would not only be grander, but cheaper. He quotes the famous TY Lin company as saying a 6-lane cable stayed bridge would cost less than $80m. And it would be cheaper to maintain than a pair of multi-arch bridges. The two sides don’t even come close in their $-numbers.

‘E. Spitzer Span’ to rival Golden Gate?

NY Attorney-General Spitzer the most outspoken state official fighting PBA has embraced the ‘signature’ bridge idea saying “Just as St. Louis has its arch and New York the Statue of Liberty, a signature bridge would be a bold visual statement to the world about Buffalo and Western New York’s renaissance.” Spitzer said in a press release that he has requested US officials to “deny a permit to expand the existing bridge until questions concerning its environmental impact and ultimate cost can be cleared up.” Senior US Senator for New York Daniel Patrick Moynihan calls the existing bridge “dreary” and says PBA has been foolish to ignore the upwelling of local anger at the proposal to reproduce its design in a second bridge.

Buffalo opponents of the PBA plans have bumper stickers and campaign buttons saying the present Peace bridge is “So Ugly No One Will Jump From It.”

The existing bridge consists of 5 steel arch spans totaling 585m (1780') over the Niagara River, which gets its waters out of Lake Erie to the south and west which run under the Peace bridge towards the famous Falls, which in turn dump their waters into Lake Ontario and the St Lawrence River. The waters rush at a constant 12 to 15 knots to a depth of 4m to 8m on a solid rock bed on their way to the falls just a few miles downstream. A sixth through-truss span – see top p11 – of 110m (360') above the Black Rock navigation canal on the Buffalo side provides 30m (100') ship clearance.

Ugliness like beauty is in the eye of the beholder. To our eye the existing bridge is inoffensive, at least, in the major portion of under-deck arches over the river. But the overhead Parker truss on top of the canal, at the high point of the bridge is a very ungainly structure, with a curved top and straight cutoffs, and it is completely out of character with the main part of the bridge. Architects Rosales Gottemoeller have done a nice job of designing the companion span. While not clashing with the old span, it is far more elegant – a nice long and low through-arch over the canal in place of the ungainly through-truss. But the architects remained constrained to a design, which required four expensive piers in the river, expensive because of the need to withstand not only the rivers scouring and turbulence but also the enormous ice flows you get in winter. Adding to the cost – which grew from an initial estimate in 1996 of $65m – has been the decision to key the piers of the new span into the old piers, which will call for long coffer dams.

Rosales Gottemoeller bridge architects have suggested replacing the Parker truss with a graceful arch like that of the new span, and Stephen Mayer says that is a possible future option.

Average daily trips over the bridge are 27k (including 4k trucks) but at peak holiday season as many as 50k vehs cross on a day, and traffic is building steadily year by year. Lines at the large immigration and customs plazas on either side of the bridge regularly cause backups onto the bridge. The existing bridge deck is 11m (36') curb to curb. It has 3-lanes without any shoulders or offsets at all. The proposed second bridge just south of the existing bridge, designed to take east or US bound traffic will have a much wider 16m (52’8) road deck providing initially 4 lanes and modest shoulders, and taking both directions of traffic. The old bridge would be taken out of service for redecking on the opening of the companion span. In the redecking the PBA would gain space for shoulders by putting a footpath on a cantilever off the side. With the old bridge rehabbed it would take west- or Canada bound traffic and the new would be restriped to 3-lanes east bound.

If PBA has made any mistake it seems to have been in underestimating the monumentalist movement in Buffalo, and not having examined the signature span concept in more detail. It may still be forced to delay the companion span to see the grand span idea fully investigated. The lesson may be the old one: Make No Little Plans. PBA’s little plans have almost been blown away in a political storm. (Contacts PBA Steve Mayer 716 884 6744 peacebridge.com; Bill Banas New Millenium Group 716 515 4545 peacebridgevote.com)

BACKGROUND: Peace Bridge is one of the most important road links between Canada and the US. It is the most direct and heavily used highway between the 5m pop economy of the country’s largest metro area centering on Toronto at the western end of Lake Ontario, and New York and the mid-Atlantic states. It connects Canada’s Queen Elizabeth Way, a Toronto-Fort Erie motorway to the New York State Thruway (I-90) via an elevated expressway (I-190) that loops by the downtown of Buffalo and runs along the banks of the Niagara River. There is a toll plaza on the US side charging US$2.00 or C$2.50/car, and electronic toll tags are in use by frequent users – a Mark IV system.

If plans for the upgrade of US-219 to motorway standard due south from Buffalo through the Appalachian mtns of NY, PA and MD are pressed forward, the Peace bridge corridor will have a direct connection into the mid-Atlantic states. The port of Baltimore will become closer to Toronto than northern NJ/NYC.

Built by the investor-financed Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Company, the bridge opened in 1927 . The toll bridge company defaulted on its bonds in the early 1930s in the depths of the depression. It was then taken over by the present PBA.

Caption to Pratt truss

The ungainly Black Rock Canal truss (left) that everyone loves to hate on the Buffalo end of the Peace Bridge is a Camelback or Parker truss. It is an 1860s variation on the standard parallel chord Pratt truss. By bowing the top chord upward toward the middle of the truss it gains extra mid-span depth. This increases bending resistance and allows the truss to span further. Neither proper arch nor proper truss, the wretched thing is a bastard cross of two distinct engineering animals, which may be why it’s so ugly. See Max Lay “Ways of the World” Rutgers Press p280.

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