Peace Bridge project won’t improve air quality

State officials proclaimed in March that their plan to reconfigure roads leading to and from the American side of the Peace Bridge would improve air quality in adjoining neighborhoods where residents in one-third of the households suffer from asthma and other respiratory illnesses.

“We are moving the traffic further away from the neighborhood where the residents are and where the people in the park are and believe just instinctively that that is going to improve air quality,” Sam Hoyt, regional president of Empire State Development and vice chairman of the Peace Bridge Authority, said when the project was announced.

“The scientists will now be engaged and the public will be engaged in this process and we may be proven wrong.”

It turns out that Hoyt and other state officials promoting the project have been proven wrong by an environmental review commissioned by the state Department of Transportation.

“The change in traffic patterns resulting from this project would not affect overall the air quality of the West Side neighborhoods,” the study concluded. As a result, the report said, air quality improvements would be “negligible.”

Air quality changes are "negligible."

Air quality changes are “negligible.”

Maria Lehman, the project manager for the state DOT, declined an interview request to discuss the study’s findings. But state and local lawmakers who initially endorsed the Peace Bridge Gateway project remain supportive.

“I would be concerned if the air quality was worse by them doing this project,” said David Rivera, the Niagara District Common Council member who represents the neighborhoods near the Peace Bridge.

But others question whether if the direct access to the Thruway and restoring a small portion of Front Park is worth the cost, which has ballooned from $22 million to $28.5 million, without any air quality improvements.

“When you set aside all of the rhetoric and look at the facts, it’s pretty clear that the costs far outweigh the benefits of this investment,” said Peter Rizzo, a federal senior urban planner from Washington, DC, who organized Erie County’s first environmental summit in October.

Study refutes claims

On March 8, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office issued a press release that quoted him as touting the project as a “win for the City of Buffalo, the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy and the Peace Bridge plaza neighborhood because it will provide efficient and effective traffic movement between New York State and Canada and improve commerce between the two economies.”

In that same press release, Assemblyman Sean Ryan, whose district includes the Peace Bridge and its surrounding neighborhoods, said the project would improve air quality.

“The improvements to traffic flow will enhance commerce between the US and Canada, and the associated reduction in congestion will help to improve air quality throughout the nearby West Side neighborhoods,” Ryan said in the press release.

The stated purpose of the project is to reduce traffic on local streets heading to or from the Thruway.

Plans call for:

  • Restoring 1.5 acres of green space in Front Park by removing Baird Drive, presently used as one of two connectors to the bridge.
  • Building a ramp that connects the bridge plaza directly to the Thruway northbound.
  • Creating a new single entrance to the bridge on the Thruway side of the park, located further away from the neighborhood than Baird Drive.
  • Funneling traffic destined for city streets onto a ramp that exits onto Niagara Street.

See project map by clicking here

View the aerial map version here

While the study found these improvements will not improve air quality, it concluded that better emission controls on diesel trucks will lead to cleaner air in and around the neighborhood from 2025 to 2035.

Air quality is an issue at the Peace Bridge because independent studies conducted from 2000-2006 found bridge traffic, particularly diesel truck fumes, contributed to asthma rates and other respiratory illness on the Lower West Side that are almost four times the national average. Investigative Post subsequently reported that air monitoring conducted by the state Department of Environmental Conservation found pollution levels in the neighborhood comparable to the dirtiest locations in the region.

The Clean Air Coalition of Western New York and the Columbus Park Association, which represents the neighborhood closest to the bridge, were initially skeptical of claims the project would improve air quality. Natasha Soto, a community organizer for the Clean Air Coalition, said the study results confirm that skepticism.

“Improvements in air quality are negligible and they may improve in future years, maybe 2025, but that’s with technology improvements with diesel exhaust,” she said.

Ryan, however, wasn’t swayed by the study results.

“I’m convinced this is going to improve air quality,” the Buffalo Democrat said of the proposed road improvements.

“There’s no reason to have trucks going through an Olmsted Park. That’s not a good thing,” he added.

“We’re not going to make a perfect thing here but who in the community is going to argue with getting trucks out of a city park?”

Rivera said the positives outweigh the negatives.

“Doing nothing is not a part of the solution,” he said. “We have to figure out a way to do something to move that truck traffic out of there.”

Benefits worth cost?

The project’s cost has increased $6.5 million since it was announced in March. The increase is attributed to replacing the Porter Avenue Bridge over the Thruway. The DOT lists the bridge as “deficient,” which means it has deteriorated to a point that requires rehabilitation or restoration.

Rizzo, the senior urban planner, questioned if the public benefit of the project is worth nearly $30 million. Rizzo organized the 2013 Conference on the Environment at Adam’s Mark Hotel in downtown Buffalo in October where a presentation on the Peace Bridge and its impact on neighborhood health took center stage.

Although the direct access to the Thruway for northbound vehicles and restoring a small portion of Front Park are benefits, Rizzo said the new entrance on Porter Avenue doesn’t reduce travel distance for vehicles entering the plaza from local streets and the southbound I-190.

In addition, those vehicles that exit the plaza for local streets — as many as 310 vehicles an hour during peak traveling times — will be dumped on Niagara Street instead of Porter Avenue.

“When the state bills this project as one that will dramatically reduce vehicles dependence on local streets, it’s just hogwash,” Rizzo said.

“So they, themselves, were not able to prove overwhelmingly that this project is worth the investment and to state that this project somehow provides a tremendous benefit to the community is simply false advertising.”

A public hearing for this project is scheduled for 4-8 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 18, at the Connecticut Street Armory at 184 Connecticut St. 

Read Investigative Post’s transparency policy on Peace Bridge coverage.