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Drivers Eye Accord in Peace Bridge Debate

Tue October 17, 2006 - Northeast Edition
Laurie Mercer

One Native American legend tells of a beautiful maiden throwing herself over Niagara Falls rather than marry a brave she despised. Lelawala paddled her canoe into the swift current of the Niagara River and was swept over the brink.

Travelers caught in long lines waiting to traverse the now approximately 80-year-old, five-arch Peace Bridge linking the United States to Canada probably share her fall-induced pain.

The Peace Bridge, which opened to major fanfare in 1927, is structurally sound but now woefully inadequate for the amount of traffic that crosses it. Studies show that the traffic surpassed the span’s capacity sometime in 2002.

Multi-mile backups, as people wait hours for increasingly stringent post-9/11 Customs processing to cross from Buffalo, N.Y., to the town of Fort Erie, Ontario, Canada, are commonplace. Truck traffic alone is 4,000 big semis daily. The Peace Bridge and the Lewiston-Queenstown Bridge are the only border crossings between the United States and Canada that allow heavy truck traffic.

The Peace Bridge, which crosses the Black Rock Canal on the American side of the Niagara River, is structurally sound with five-arched spans and a Parker through-truss. Its length is 5,800 ft. (1,768 m) made from 3,500 ft. (1,067 m) of steel work, 9,000 tons (8,165 t) of structural steel, and 800 tons (726 t) of reinforcing steel in the concrete abutments. The old bridge design has its admirers and its critics and some call it classic blue-collar Buffalo style.

Love it or leave it — one design element that gives the old bridge character is its asymmetric, or ill-proportioned nature. Unlike many bridges with a navigation span in the middle, the Peace Bridge’s navigation span is on the American side of the river. Therefore, the highest point in the bridge is not, in fact, at the border in the middle of the river.

Of the six bridges that cross the international border between Canada and the United States along the Niagara River, the Peace Bridge probably ranks as the second busiest. In addition to its tolls, the bridge’s impact on commerce and tourism is immeasurable.

In 1997, the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority — representing both nations —announced plans to build a second, more leading-edge structure beside the existing Peace Bridge, but legal difficulties and court challenges delayed the start of construction indefinitely. Issues including aesthetics, environmental concerns, and just who will pay for it proved unwieldy.

At one point in 2004, citizens on both sides of the border voted for their favorite new bridge design after viewing a 30-minute television show about each proposal. Votes were tallied using phone and Internet balloting in a move reminiscent of “American Idol,” a popularity-based television show. The results were ignored.

Unlike the Peace Bridge Expansion Project, which was bogged down from the start of its planning stages, plans for the original Peace Bridge took just two years to move from concept to completion. When the bridge opened, Buffalo became the chief port of entry to Canada from the United States.

Earlier in 2006 there was a glimmer of hope for progress when the Peace Bridge Design Selection Jury finally combed through 33 different bridge concepts and discussed issues of vision, aesthetics, public input, bridge function, costs, security, and history. The jury framed a vision that was more than a simple crossing. It wanted an elegant companion structure that also would maintain a clear view of the existing Peace Bridge. Some people likened a signature structure as being critical to the rebirth of Buffalo, a city struggling to get beyond its rust belt image and economic decline.

In a press release, the jury framed a vision that called for a “great experience that symbolically represents the strength and imagination of both countries.”

Many people caught in traffic at the bridge, breathing in those diesel fumes, could not care less about the experience. They just want to get where they are going.

In the end, after reviewing 33 proposed concepts, the jury recommended a Two Tower Cable Stay Companion Bridge Design (Concept No. 6), but Bruce L. Campbell, project manager of the expansion project, said that after the environmental review process is complete sometime late in 2007, the design is subject to change, depending on the findings.

“We still have to complete the environmental review process,” said Campbell, who has been on the project since 2002. “Once we get moving in the final design construction phase, it will go fast.”

Campbell acknowledged that the new Peace Bridge is likely to resemble Bridge Engineer Christian Menn’s recommendation for two-needle shaped towers to straddle the supporting main span of 1,600 ft. One tower would be located on the western shore of the river while the other would be located on the west side of the Black Rock Channel. Both towers would be 567 ft. high. In the proposed design, the cables connect the outside edges of the roadway and run to the outside face of the tower’s base and transition to the central spindle near the top.

Menn’s idea of two towers shaped like narrow spindles, one on each side of the river, would make the bridge approximately five stories taller than Buffalo’s City Hall while also allowing a solid view of the original Peace Bridge.

The Peace Bridge Authority hired Menn, a native of Switzerland, as its premier design consultant, hoping to resolve community division over the design on both sides of the Niagara River. Other types of bridges under review were suspension, cable-stayed, and arch and beam.

“Why not dare to build a big bridge?” Menn reportedly asked when his ideas were made public. “I thought you should have the courage to build a big bridge between these two big nations.”

There is no guarantee, however, that Menn’s design is the one that will eventually be built.

Big Doings When It Opened

In 1925, before environmental reviews, the only real obstacle to constructing the original Peace Bridge, named for the amicable relationship between the United States and Canada, was the swift river current, which averages up to 12 mph. Major construction contracts were awarded to R.B. Porter of St. Catharines, Turner Construction of Buffalo, and Bethlehem Steel Company of Pennsylvania.

The Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority, the binational group that built the border crossing in 1927, still runs it.

Construction began in 1925 and was ready for traffic by spring of 1927. The official opening hosted 100,000 people while the first international coast-to-coast radio broadcast of the event reached an estimated 50 million eager listeners.

A bridge linking two great nations was big news. Dignitaries were on hand March 13, 1927, to watch Edward Lupfer, the chief engineer, drive the first automobile across the new five-arch span. Notables included Prince Edward of Wales, the future Edward VIII; Prince Albert, the future George VI; the Canadian and British prime ministers; the American vice president; the secretary of state; and the governor of New York.

In 1977 Canada and the United States both issued postage stamps to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Peace Bridge.

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