Governor Andrew Cuomo a month ago announced a project to reconfigure traffic routes leading to and from the Peace Bridge as all but a done deal.
Not so fast.
The $22 million project faces a review that officials want to expedite to finish in a year. Part of the process involves something that project planners have resisted to this point, but which Cuomo advocated for when he was running for governor: consulting with neighborhoods populated with low-income residents and minorities on projects with potential health and environmental consequences.
State officials believe the project will improve traffic flow, reduce congestion and improve air quality as a result. But the study to test those claims has yet to be conducted.
Critics contend the plan won’t necessarily improve air quality or gridlock, especially if the goal is to increase the number of vehicles using the bridge, which last year came to about 6 million.
“There is absolutely no scientific evidence that reconfiguring an entrance ramp is going to improve air quality,” said Kathy Mecca, president of the Columbus Park Association, which represents the neighborhood closest to the bridge.
Sam Hoyt, Cuomo’s pointman in Western New York and the immediate past chairman of the Public Bridge Authority, said the study, which is called an environmental impact statement, will ultimately determine if the plan will reduce congestion, improve traffic flow and air pollution.
“We believe it is a dramatic improvement to what is there now,” he said. “We anticipate that it’s going to reduce congestion; it won’t eliminate congestion.”
Plan would reroute traffic
Vehicles approaching the Peace Bridge northbound on the Thruway now use a two-lane ramp to reach the bridge, while southbound vehicles on the Thruway, and vehicles traveling on city streets, use Baird Drive, parallel to Busti Avenue.
The plan is to funnel all traffic onto the road leading off the northbound ramp off the Thruway. This entry road will be widened from two to three lanes.
Southbound vehicles that clear Customs and Immigration on the American side would continue to use the existing ramp onto the Thruway. A new ramp would be constructed for northbound vehicles heading for the Thruway. Cars and trucks destined for city streets would be routed down Niagara Street. Hoyt said this reconfiguration would remove the zigzag patterns cars and trucks follow now.
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The timeline calls for construction to start in spring 2014 and finish before the end of 2015.
The removal of Baird Drive would restore a small portion of Front Park to the edge of Busti Avenue, a potential selling point with the Olmsted Park board. Construction of the Thruway and expansion of the bridge plaza and feeder roads have whittled away larger sections of the park over the past 60 years, however.
While the restoration of a portion of the park has won the proposal some support, others question whether the plan would improve traffic flow and air quality.
The traffic signal on Baird Drive near the Duty Free store would be removed, which Hoyt contends would relieve any potential bottlenecks resulting from directing all Canadian-bound traffic to a single point of entry. But the proposal calls for a traffic circle or signal to funnel vehicles approaching the bridge southbound off the Thruway or from the city via Porter Avenue. That traffic circle or signal could result in backups on busy travel days.
Protecting the poor
Erin Heaney, executive director of the Clean Air Coalition of Western New York, was critical of Hoyt and Cuomo for announcing this project as progress and a victory for the community. She said the project is more nuanced than that.
“They are going to move trucks to a different part of the neighborhood,” she said. “Trucks will be coming down Porter Avenue now.
“There is actually no science yet that proves this is going to help with bottlenecks, that this is going to improve air quality. We want to see the traffic studies, we want to see science that shows this is going to help solve the problem before we celebrate it as a victory.”
Federal and state environmental justice rules state that low-income, minority communities cannot bear a disproportionate amount of health and environmental impacts from any project.
The West Side is designated an environmental justice area because 46 percent of its residents live in poverty and 69 percent are minority, according to the 2010 Census.
This designation not only requires project planners to avoid, minimize, or mitigate the health and environmental impacts, but to meaningfully engage the community as early, and as often, as possible.
State officials shared the proposed plans to select politicians and the board of the Olmsted Park Conservancy, which manages Front Park, before the project was publicly announced. But officials made no effort to engage neighborhood residents.
“The [Public] Bridge Authority and the governor started off by showing these plans to the white, wealthy elite in the City of Buffalo who don’t live in the neighborhood,” Heaney said.
“It is unconscionable that Sam Hoyt was taking those plans around to the board of the Olmsted Parks Conservancy … when he has low-income people of color asking him for those plans for well over a year,” she said.
Environmental justice experts and attorneys said this project got off on the wrong foot because planners didn’t engage the community at the same time they were meeting with politicians and the Olmsted Parks Conservancy.
“There are certainly better ways to do it. The best practice is to consult with the people who will be affected as early as possible,” said Marianne Engelman Lado, a staff attorney for the nonprofit environmental law firm EarthJustice.
Albert Huang, an environmental justice attorney for Natural Resources Defense Council in New York City, echoed Lado’s remarks.
“You really need to build trust with these communities, and it will save you money and time in the end,” he said. “That is what the best guidance is.
“These statues aren’t a panacea, but they require a process and that you really actively involve the communities and get their input. Of course, if they want a project to happen they are going to line up the support for it. Is it in their best interest to cut the community out early? No,” Huang said.
Hoyt discounted the criticism about the timing of public engagement.
“There have been complaints that this hasn’t been analyzed, this hasn’t been open to the public,” he said. “Well, that will all take place during what we hope is an expedited environmental impact study. The public will be fully engaged in this process.”
Hoyt said the Olmsted Parks Conservancy board was approached because it protested one of the proposals that included a hook ramp north of Front Park.
“Those that had the strongest objections with what we are planning on doing was the Olmsted Park Conservancy, because it encroached on their property,” he said.
Cuomo’s environmental agenda during his run for governor promised greater focus on environmental justice communities by requiring more active public engagement and building relationships with community-based organizations.
“We must ensure that the public health and quality of life interests of low-income and minority communities are well represented and we will partner with the environmental justice community to strengthen environmental protections in low income and minority communities,” his campaign website states.
But some believe that Cuomo won’t follow through on that pledge because he wants this project on a fast track so construction can begin by next fall.
“When any government agency or politician says they are going to fast-track a project, that says to me that the rights that are in place for citizens to be protected are going to be trampled on,” said Mecca, president of the Columbus Park Association.
Community engagement will begin in May or June, said Maria Lehman, a Department of Transportation project manager working on the road project. The process will include at least one meeting to present the plans to the public and a subsequent public hearing. The DOT will be required to study a no-build scenario along with alternative plans.
Judith Enck, this area’s regional administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency, said environmental justice best practices require not only public meetings, but other strategies to engage those affected by a project.
“It’s consulting with neighbors, going to civic associations, it’s going door to door,” she said. “It’s making sure that the information is put out in multiple languages if multiple languages are spoken.
“It’s going to people where they live. Not a whole lot of people are comfortable showing up at a public hearing and speaking out.”
So far, DOT officials have committed to two public meetings.
No dialogue on plaza expansion plans
The Public Bridge Authority is contemplating an expansion of the bridge plaza on the American side. The proposed road work is a prelude to that expansion.
Hoyt said the two projects won’t be done concurrently because the authority hasn’t approved any firm plans to expand the plaza. But that has not stopped bridge officials from showing draft plans with selected groups and people—plans that have not been shared with neighborhood residents, despite repeated requests.
“If the broader project really is to expand this Peace Bridge plaza, they should be transparent with the public about that now,” said Heaney of the Clean Air Coalition. “When they continue to act like that, it makes it hard to believe anything they say.”
While officials are not willing to share draft plans of a plaza expansion, Hoyt and Public Bridge Authority General Manager Ron Rienas said they will follow a similar review process to what will be used for the road work, including public participation.
“It would be a requirement, so we would do it,” Rienas said.
Investigative Post President Lee Coppola did the final edit of this story. See our transparency policy as it relates stories that involve the Clean Air Coalition.