The partnership that formed to resolve the Peace Bridge controversy has put together a team of architects that soon will begin work on what kind of structure to build across the Niagara River, and most signals point to something drastically different from the twin span originally proposed.
A key member of the architect team was announced Wednesday, and he is a bridge designer pushed three years ago by proponents of a SuperSpan.
The hiring of Eugene Figg and his engineering company as a consultant is theclearest signal yet the Peace Bridge Authority is willing to consider options it previously dismissed as impractical, government and civic leaders said Wednesday.
Swiss architect Christian Menn, also retained as a consultant, will provide design concepts that Figg's Engineering Group, of Tallahassee, Fla., and another consulting group will be expected to critique and further develop.
Figg's selection is noteworthy because he's highly regarded for building concrete, landmark bridges -- the kind that local civic groups talked about as they fought against the authority's previous plan for a twinned Peace Bridge.
"I think that we have the best bridge talent in the world," said Vincent P. Lamb of Parsons Transportation Group, project manager for the binational environmental review planned for the Peace Bridge project.
Clinton Brown, co-founder and spokesman for SuperSpan Upper Niagara, said he's encouraged by Figg's selection.
"This is a huge turning point for Buffalo and Fort Erie, as well as for the authority," Brown said. "His selection means the authority is serious about a public and professional process going forward."
SuperSpan Upper Niagara asked Figg to come to Buffalo in recent years to show signature bridge proposals that could be built for $80 million to $100 million and be completed within five years.
"Gene Figg is not only North America's most important bridge engineer, but he has also pioneered a public consensus process that brings public ownership and project closure to these important projects across the nation," Brown said.
The partnership that agreed on Figg and Menn consists of the Peace Bridge Authority, the City of Buffalo and the town of Fort Erie, Ont. It was formed in November after the authority decided to give up its fight for a twin span and look to both sides of the border to reach a consensus in what kind of bridge to build.
The partnership agreed on this team of architects, and the Peace Bridge Authority is picking up the bulk of the tab. After the architect consultants come up with their recommendation, the authority will then decide whether pursue it.
Figg's presence in the process is expected to build trust between the authority and groups that fought the twin-span plan.
"I certainly hope we won't have any lingering problems of 'we' and 'they,' " said Paul J. Koessler, the authority's vice chairman.
Figg's firm has won three National Endowment for the Arts awards for such designs as the Sunshine Skyway Bridge over Tampa Bay, Fla., and the Natchez Trace Arches near Nashville, Tenn.
Figg said he has no preconceived notions about what kind of bridge he would like to help design here.
During an October 1999 visit to Buffalo, Figg said he favored a six-lane span but had no comment on the Peace Bridge Authority's plan for a companion, three-lane span.
He called public input vital to the process of choosing the right bridge to cross the Niagara River.
"Our whole approach is to design what the people want, and to make it a world-class bridge," Figg said.
Figg said his philosophy is to design a world-class bridge that's economical.
"We specialize in the kinds of situations the Buffalo and Fort Erie area is confronted with," he said.
Hailing Figg's selection
Brown of SuperSpan Upper Niagara said Figg brings urban bridge building experience that will prove helpful as he comes to Buffalo.
Others find Figg's selection an even bigger deal than Menn's entry.
"They've both reached the pinnacle of their profession," said Jeff Belt, president of the New Millennium Group of Western New York, which campaigned for a new six-lane bridge to replace the existing Peace Bridge. "The difference between Gene Figg and Christian Menn is that Gene Figg is a bridge designer originally brought into town by the opposition to the bridge authority. Christian Menn is a little easier for the authority because they were selecting a nonpartisan."
Though Figg never acted as a partisan in the twin-span debate, his selection is "demonstrative of a whole new attitude on the part of the authority," Belt said.
Figg will be asked to come up with and assess bridge options. The authority wants to look at a range of medium- and long-span structure types -- truss, arch and cable-stayed bridges -- and materials such as concrete and steel.
Lamb said aesthetics and architecture also will be a key consideration.
In addition to Figg, the authority selected Modjeski and Masters of Poughkeepsie and Buckland & Taylor of North Vancouver, located in the Canadian province of British Columbia, as a team to serve as another bridge design consultant.
Figg and the other engineering firms will pursue their own ideas but also work as a team and review and develop the others' ideas, Lamb said.
Menn will come up with his own ideas, and those ideas will be passed along to Figg, Modjeski and Masters, and Buckland & Taylor, for more detailed development, Lamb said.
Also, Menn will be asked to review and critique the other designers' ideas.
Figg and Menn have worked together before. Menn came up with the idea for a cable-stayed bridge over the Charles River linking Boston and Cambridge, Mass. Figg helped design it.
The intent of the environmental review process is to narrow the options down to the best alternative, make sure its feasible, assess its environmental impact and have a good idea of what it would cost to build.
When finished, the firms will have completed about 30 percent of the design, an authority official said.
At that point, the authority will choose whether to pursue the alternative and then decide which firm will complete the design work and build it.
It's possible one or more of the consulting design firms could end up designing the finished project, or none.
The New Millennium Group's Belt said a year ago he did not think he would see the day when the authority would agree to work with Figg.
Figg was a long shot
Figg met with former County Executive Dennis Gorski and Peace Bridge Authority commissioners as far back as January 1998 to tell them that a dramatic gateway bridge across the Niagara River could match the authority's twin-bridge plan on cost, timing, land use and economic opportunity -- and beat it as for beauty.
But in July 1998, the binational authority approved the plan to build a three-lane companion bridge and cited the lack of solid cost estimates and other details. After that, the authority fought political opposition and lawsuits in Buffalo before agreeing in November to scrap the twin-span plan and start again.
Belt has spent two years as one of the leaders of a campaign for a signature bridge.
"When I started on this journey, I was very naive," Belt said. "One year ago I was jaded. Now I'm optimistic again, but hopefully no longer naive."