Seven days ago the state’s point person for the Peace Bridge gateway project said her team was busy translating handouts and power-point presentations in anticipation of Tuesday’s meeting, when the public would see the road plans for the first time.
“The handouts, boards and power point are being worked on as we speak. Some will be done in Spanish and Burmese and thus will be in translation,” Maria Lehman, an engineer with the state Department of Transportation assigned to manage the project, wrote in the email last week.
However, none of the presentation was translated for the meetings at D’Youville College Center on Porter Avenue, where an estimated 200 residents attended afternoon and evening sessions. Only one of a dozen or so documents was translated in Spanish. The 992 postcards sent to residents living near the bridge were all in English. The state had one Spanish translator at the meeting who didn’t translate any of the presentation.
A public notification was published in the Hispanic newspaper La Ultima Hora, but not the more visible Panorama Hispano newspaper.
“They called me about three days ago, someone from Parsons who is the contractor, and they wanted to drop off fliers, but they never called to advertise,” said Edwin Martinez, the publisher of Panorama Hispano.
“I told them that they are a little late in process. I thought there was a 30-day notification process for the public. They ended up sending me an email after I spoke with them and it had an English flier and a Spanish flier, which was basically a press release,” Martinez said.
Why does this matter?
This proposed project at the Peace Bridge impacts a neighborhood on Buffalo’s Lower West Side that has a large minority population, many living in poverty. About 30 percent are Spanish-speaking residents and another third are white. The rest of nearby residents are black or immigrants from Third World countries such as Somalia, Ethiopia, Burma and Cambodia.
There are also health problems in the community. A series of studies found that bridge traffic emissions, especially from diesel trucks, are a significant contributor to why at least one person in every three homes has asthma.
The neighborhood’s demographics make it an environmental justice area, which triggers a series of events to ensure that poor, minority communities do not share a disproportionate share of environmental and health impacts of major public projects.
Cuomo promised during his gubernatorial run to ensure that “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.”
Natasha Soto, an organizer with the Clean Air Coalition of Western New York, said the outreach wasn’t sufficient and there was little effort to engage the minority community. That left the task of getting the word out to community groups.
“It is so easy to say that the neighborhood doesn’t care about this issue, but when you don’t even give them an opportunity to care, you are just cutting them off at the legs,” Soto said.
Kathy Mecca, president of the Columbus Park Association, said a DOT official responsible for some of the environmental justice outreach approached her and said, “I didn’t know so many languages were spoken in the West Side.”
“They didn’t do their homework,” Mecca said. “The perception is that if they have someone translating in Spanish, they’ve addressed the minority community.”
Lehman acknowledged that the state could have done a better job.
“I don’t know where the breakdown happened,” with the translation of documents in different languages, she said.
The proposal presented at the meeting is to reconfigure the ingress and egress to the U.S. plaza, which state officials say will improve traffic flow and move traffic away from the neighborhood. But the plan has its skeptics who believe the goal is to increase traffic at the bridge, which would make air pollution worse.
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View the aerial map version here.
Presenters said that the purpose of the project is to reduce the use of local streets by directing traffic to the Thruway. They said the need for the project is to address the limited direct access between the U.S. Plaza and the Thruway.
More than a dozen placards surrounded the meeting room, each staffed with employees and subcontractors for Parsons Group, selected to conduct the year-long environmental review for the project.
About four representatives attended from DOT’s Albany office, seven from the regional office and there were at least three security guards, which drew the ire from Clean Air Coalition of Western New York’s executive director Erin Heaney.
“Nothing in Spanish but lots of security guards at the peace bridge presentation. Nice inclusive behavior by the NYSDOT,” Heaney tweeted at the afternoon meeting.
Some at the meeting found the information confusing and hard to follow the maze of placards.
“I think it is designed to be opaque,” said Michael Herbold, who lives on Rhode Island Street.
Mecca said the meeting was “very controlled” and she had a hard time getting questions answered or the responses were too vague. She also said that the big picture that Cuomo has been pushing — expanding the U.S. plaza and possibly constructing a larger duty free store closer to the neighborhood — is a separate plan that was not part of Tuesday’s meetings.
“They were not taking any questions during the power-point presentation,” she said. “I think they could have had a much better presentation if they would have allowed the community to interact with them during that power point.”
Project planners said the “scoping report” will be available in the middle of July. The draft environmental study is expected to be finished in November, setting up the final meeting the public will have with project planners in December.
Also see Investigative Post’s transparency on Peace Bridge coverage.