Peace bridge caught in border war

A new bridge is needed, but U.S. and Canada don't agree exactly how to do it

May 07, 1999|By David W. Chen | David W. Chen,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

BUFFALO, N.Y. Since the days of Prohibition, the Peace Bridge has been the infrastructural equivalent of a warm handshake between Canada and the United States: an economic, recreational and cultural lifeline for people on both sides of the Niagara River.

Because of the bridge, Canadians do not think twice about crossing over to Buffalo Sabres hockey games or buying winter homes in the Cattaraugus Mountains. Americans routinely hop over to Toronto for dinner, and stay in summer cottages on the Canadian side of Lake Erie.

But these days, there is anything but peace at the Peace Bridge.

The bridge, a 3,600-foot steel truss built in 1927, is past its prime and is barely adequate for the traffic that has surged in recent years at the crossing, where the wait can exceed an hour and a half.

The Canadians are pushing to build a three-lane bridge next to the existing one, a mirror-image twin span that they say would honor history and symbolize American-Canadian friendship. The Americans, though, want to demolish the old bridge and build a six-lane structure that they envision as so impressive that they are calling it a signature bridge.

The clash over the Peace Bridge is not just a battle of function vs. form, engineering vs. aesthetics. It has become a political football in Ottawa and Washington, with Canadian officials accusing the Americans of Manifest Destiny arrogance, and U.S. officials dismissing the Canadians as parochial.

"It's not an American bridge; its an international bridge," sighed John Maloney, who represents the Fort Erie district in the Canadian Parliament. "The Canadian interests and desires appear to be ignored. It's very disappointing, and quite frankly, very difficult to believe that this could be happening."

The clash has been transformed into a fight of major magnitude. The new bridge is the biggest project in many years, a huge endeavor that could cost $90 million and take more than six years.

"While nobody thinks that a bridge will revitalize a city, public symbols are important, especially here, because a lot of people feel beat up," said Bruce Jackson, a professor of American culture at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

The debate is at a crucial stage. With the support of the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority, the quasi-public binational authority that operates the bridge, Canadian officials have approved all of the requisite permits to begin work on the twin-bridge proposal. All that remains is a decision by the U.S. Coast Guard on whether the project has any negative impact on the Niagara River.

But Buffalo's mayor, Anthony Masiello, has threatened to sue if the Coast Guard approves the permit. And except for Gov. George Pataki, who has sidestepped the issue, all of New Yorks major politicians, including Sens. Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Charles Schumer and Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, have thrown their weight behind the signature bridge.

There is, however, one point of agreement: Something must be done to improve the flow of traffic on the existing bridge.

Commercial traffic via the Peace Bridge has skyrocketed in recent years. In 1991, $23 billion worth of goods passed through; now, the annual figure is $40 billion to $45 billion, said Stephen F. Mayer, the bridge's operations manager on the American side.

For years, truckers, commuters and vacationers have complained about the lack of customs agents and immigration officials at the border, creating bottlenecks that are especially pronounced during the summer.

So in the early 1990s, the bridge authority began studying options for a new bridge.

For a while, it seemed that the twin bridge, combined with a plan to renovate the existing one, would be a fait accompli: The authority's 10-member board of directors, made up of five Canadians and five Americans, unanimously approved the project, which would be financed by bonds.

But after the winning bid came in at $90 million, much higher than previously projected, public opinion on the American side began to shift, led by Moynihan and a citizens group of mostly young professionals in Buffalo called the New Millennium Group.

As an alternative, they unveiled plans for a concrete cable-stayed bridge, in which cables flare out from a central tower, sketched by the noted bridge designers Bruno Freschi and T.Y. Lin, that they said would be better, cheaper and faster to build.

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