Like trucks inching across during rush hour, the Peace Bridge plaza expansion project seems finally to be moving, although still at a crawl.
The latest sign of progress is Friday’s announcement that the bridge authority has bought liens on the nearby Episcopal Church Home site, the last piece of property needed to expand the plaza.
Days earlier, officials revealed that six months of air monitoring will begin in early September to measure pollution around the bridge, addressing another challenge. An additional six months of monitoring will occur after the plaza has been expanded.
Officials – from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Rep. Brian Higgins down to Mayor Byron W. Brown and supportive Common Council members – are clearly betting that the improved plaza will move truck and other traffic far more efficiently. That should result in less congestion, less vehicle time spent on the bridge and plaza, and less pollution being inhaled by area residents.
Critics aren’t so sure, but no Buffalo project proceeds without criticism.
While the pre- and post-construction air testing may not constitute the constant monitoring that environmental advocates want, it will provide an indication of whether the air is safe both now and after the reconstruction – something residents have long demanded. And the testing will be overseen by the state Department of Environmental Conservation, not the Peace Bridge Authority.
Equally important, the Clean Air Coalition of Western New York and the University at Buffalo will do their own air monitoring, providing an extra level of scrutiny and – if things go right – reassurance in a neighborhood that residents say already suffers from high asthma rates.
If things don’t go as planned and pollution – say, from extra trucks drawn here by a more efficient plaza – does prove problematic despite diesel improvements mandated by the EPA, the data will provide the solid evidence needed to ameliorate whatever problems develop. Other cities manage to have modern bridge facilities without endangering the health of residents. Buffalo should be able to do so, too.
Progress on the testing comes in the wake of word that the Peace Bridge is in the running to be a federal pilot project for pre-screening trucks on the Canadian side, a move that would further increase bridge efficiency and reduce pollution in Buffalo neighborhoods.
Cuomo earlier this month also announced a preliminary deal for the city to turn over two blocks of Busti Avenue needed for the expansion in a deal that – along with the monitoring and enforcement of idling restrictions – includes $2 million for neighborhood improvements. It was enough to get some city officials on board and restart momentum on a project critical not only to truckers, but to our sports teams and other businesses that depend on cross-border traffic. Friday’s announcement adds to that momentum.
True, a lawsuit by preservationists has stalled plans to demolish the boarded-up homes on Busti needed for the plaza, with critics claiming the homes are historic.
But the authority is proceeding with prep work in the expectation that courts will find it has followed all applicable laws. There’s clearly no reason to further delay a project whose value far outweighs the benefits of keeping what one neighborhood resident called “deteriorated and rat-infested homes.”
Such misplaced concerns have been a staple of this process since plans for a new bridge first surfaced some two decades ago. In the intervening years, little has been accomplished. Finally, with a firm nudge from Cuomo, Buffalo appears to be getting out of its own way.