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In the decade following the horrors of World War I, peace was celebrated at every opportunity. The supporters of a bridge connecting Buffalo and Fort Erie, Ontario, seized upon that tide and in 1927 the Peace Bridge was born. Today it is operated by the Public Bridge Authority. It is ironic that a bridge passionately dedicated to peace has in recent years ignited a war between those who see it as an engine of commerce driving perhaps the largest sector of our economy and others who see it as a threat to the health of those living nearby.

Commerce flowing between the United States and Canada – the largest trading relationship in the world – ranks Buffalo in the top five among the more than 300 land and sea ports in the United States. On March 3, 1805, when President Thomas Jefferson signed an act of Congress designating Buffalo an official port, commerce flowed to and fro across the Great Lakes through the bustling port at Buffalo and across the state on ox carts. Twenty years later came the Erie Canal, cutting weeks off that trip. Enter the railroads, and the grain:

“In 1861 I was at Buffalo. I saw the wheat running in rivers, rivers of food running day and night. I saw the men bathed in grain, I felt myself enveloped in a world of breadstuff. I began to know what it was for a country to overflow with milk and honey, to be smothered by its own riches.” (Anthony Trollope)

When the St. Lawrence Seaway opened 55 years ago, many thought it ended our role as a port. “Seaway shock” distracted our leaders; they forgot that we were never really a manufacturing center so much as we were and are a distribution center. Goods and services are produced here because we are centrally located to serve the bulk of the U.S. population plus the major Canadian markets. We missed a chance to morph from a lake port distribution/manufacturing center to a land port distribution/manufacturing center – an error we are just beginning to correct.

The trucks and trains coming and going 24/7 transport far more goods than ever sailed the lakes. That, of course, brings forth those who say, “Much good it does us, all those trucks and trains just passing through.” While it’s true that much of the commerce does just pass through, do we get nothing from it? Not by a long-shot.

All those goods passing through are supported by perhaps our largest economic sector: trade and logistics. We are all aware of the truck terminals and those who protect our borders. What is not so obvious are the brokers who smooth the journey of all those goods to and fro across the border. Then there are the bankers, accountants, attorneys and others who support the flow of international trade. There are tens of thousands of well-paying jobs in this region, thanks to our border crossings.

Health concerns

But is it worth the price? That’s the question that arises in connection with any improvement to the prime conduit across the Niagara River, the Peace Bridge. Even the slightest change brings forth a firestorm of opposition. Much is easily dismissed as the normal “not in my back yard” opposition to any public project close to a residential community.

Add to that a well-financed effort to fill the air with chaff and confusion from a Detroit for-profit bridge owner who feels threatened by any expansion of a not-for-profit competitor. Add a plethora of environmental concerns, incompatible aesthetic goals, and the process drags on and on.

The most serious ongoing concern is the role this gateway plays in the health of those living nearby. What is the impact of pollutants created by vehicles passing over the bridge and across the U.S. plaza? What is the role of these pollutants on those suffering from asthma? Are they triggering asthma attacks, even the disease itself? Asthma is a frightening scourge. Coughing, wheezing, loss of sleep, trouble breathing, a tight feeling in your chest and you feel like you are suffocating. Without help you could die. It’s bad enough for adults, but it’s horrifying for children and their parents.

However, we know infinitely more about asthma today than we did just a few years ago.

On its website, the researchers at the Partners Asthma Center at Brigham and Women’s Hospital say, “Like many other diseases, asthma likely results in part from a tendency, present in one’s genes, toward developing the disease and in part from exposures that one encounters in the world around us: that is, part heredity, part environment. We do not know exactly what in our environment contributes to developing asthma in those with a genetic predisposition. It may involve breathed particles to which we are allergic, cigarette smoke or air pollution, viruses or other germs, or some combination of these and possibly other factors.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website offers a long list of asthma attack triggers: tobacco smoke, dust mites, cockroaches and their droppings, pets, mold, burning wood, plants, incense, candles, influenza, colds, respiratory viruses, sinus infections, allergies, outdoor air pollution, indoor air pollution, chemicals, acid reflux, exercise, medicines, thunderstorms, humidity, cold air, food, food additives and fragrances. Strong emotions leading to hyperventilation can also trigger an asthma attack.

Outdoor air pollution includes internal combustion engine exhaust. From lawn mowers to 18-wheelers, they all contribute to this trigger. A Department of Environmental Conservation wind pattern analysis over the bridge and its plazas shows the prevailing winds from the southwest in the summer months and the west-southwest in winter months. Readings on the Niagara Thruway south of the bridge show much higher levels of pollutants than on the U.S. plaza. That’s not surprising; the Thruway traffic volume is much heavier than the Peace Bridge.

Researchers use the number of asthma-related visits to emergency rooms and hospital admissions to pinpoint concentrations of asthma sufferers. Patient ZIP codes show where the disease is most prevalent. The most recent study (July 2012) specifically addresses this question as it relates to the Peace Bridge and its U.S. plaza. The New York State Department of Transportation commissioned the study, with the cooperation of the DEC and the Department of Health.

It shows pollution levels adjacent to the U.S. plaza to be much lower than recommended levels. It shows four ZIP codes in Buffalo with higher levels of asthma-related hospitalizations and three with more visits to the emergency room than the neighborhood adjacent to the bridge.

What’s being done

Reconfigurations of the bridge infrastructure and the inspection lanes have reduced backups and idling time. Moving toll collection to the Canadian plaza and introducing the trusted traveler programs, FAST and NEXUS, along with requiring truckers to have their paperwork completed before approaching the bridge, have all cut down idling time. The pre-inspection program now being tested at the Canadian plaza will reduce truck idling time at the U.S. plaza. When fully implemented, pre-inspection will end nearly all truck idling here. It will make expansion of the U.S. plaza unnecessary. ​The hiring of more Customs and Border Protection agents, announced in late March, will cut wait times and keep the plaza nearly free of idling vehicles.

Add to that the improvements to diesel engines and fuel, not to mention even stricter requirements just announced for 2016. All truck engines built beginning in 2007 run cleaner and use cleaner fuel. Two-thirds of the trucks crossing the bridge are 2007 or newer and meet “near zero” emission requirements.

To put Peace Bridge truck crossings in perspective, once the infrastructure and inspection reconfigurations are in place, truck idling on the bridge or at the plaza will be minimal. Those improvements, combined with reductions in diesel engine pollutants, will have the same effect as removing 90 percent of the bridge truck traffic. It’s the same as cutting the daily average truck crossings from 3,500 to less than 350 trucks a day.

In a 2010 Washington press conference, Rich Kassel of the Natural Resources Defense Council and Margo Oge, director of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Transportation and Air Quality, celebrated the incredible vehicle exhaust reductions made over the last decade, declaring that diesel trucks are now “near zero emission.” Particulate emissions from 60 modern trucks now total no more than the emission from one old truck. And older trucks now use the mandated ultra low sulfur diesel fuel and are being retrofitted with particulate filters to reduce emissions of this pollutant.

Military leaders throughout history have made the mistake of preparing to defend their nation based on their last war. Those with knee-jerk opposition to every action by the Peace Bridge are doing precisely that. They are basing their arguments on data and conditions from a decade or more ago. This is a conflict where there can be no winners. In a perfect world, there would be no pollutants of any kind to damage our health. Trade would never generate negative factors. And modern medicine would overcome asthma and all disease. While we are still working on that ideal world, we are much better off today than we were a decade ago. And the Peace Bridge is worlds beyond where it was a decade ago.

“I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past,” said Jefferson in 1805. He could not have imagined its future when he uttered those words. Let us hope our future exceeds our dreams.

W.T. “Bill” McKibben, a Hall of Fame broadcaster, writer and journalist, has a background in cross-border tourism and trade. In the 1970s and ’80s, he headed a marketing company that was deeply involved in cross-border tourism, and worked to increase trade coming across the North Atlantic route through Halifax and via rail to Buffalo and on to the eastern United States.