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NEW BRIDGE DESIGN PLAN STIRS MIXED FEELINGS

The mayors in Buffalo and Fort Erie, Ont., say they support a newly announced design competition to pick what kind of new bridge to build across the Niagara River, but the group that has championed a signature span since 1999 opposes the change.

The New Millennium Group -- whose members have taken part in Peace Bridge workshops, advisory meetings and the public vote last May on design options -- previously expressed concerns about the selection process jettisoned last week.

But the new design competition could exclude the two designers whose work over the past three years has given New Millennium Group members optimism.

The group wants Swiss bridge designer Christian Menn and the Figg Engineering Group of Tallahassee, Fla., to remain on board.

"They keep telling us we're delaying the project. But every time they give us a chance to participate, they throw out the vote and start a new process," said Deborah Lynn Williams, a New Millennium Group board member.

Peace Bridge officials last week said they adopted the new selection method because of criticism of the old approach and the lingering suspicion among some in the community that the Peace Bridge Authority board had predetermined a choice. A design competition will dispel that notion, said Ron Rienas, the authority's general manager.

The public polling that drew nearly 5,000 votes has emerged as a flash point.

Rienas said the results do not command public respect.

"There's been some criticism of the Internet voting, that people in New Zealand were voting on a design of a bridge, and they had just as much say as someone from the neighborhood," Rienas said. "We're listening to those concerns. We also want to make sure that there's absolutely no perception that there is a preconceived idea the board has for the final design."

In the public voting, votes were cast via telephone, an Internet Web site and on forms distributed at a public workshop.

Menn's two-tower, cable-stayed design garnered the most votes. A Figg design finished second.

The New Millennium Group said the selection process can be adjusted to overcome concerns about the public vote without totally abandoning the old approach.

"As flawed as we thought the voting process was, we thought there was salvageable information there," Williams said. "The general theme was the public favored Figg and Menn.

"So far, they're the only two engineers and designers both the bridge authority and the public seem to agree on," she said. "Why throw everything out and start over again?"

Peace Bridge officials say Figg and Menn, if they choose, will be allowed to participate in the design competition. Parsons Transportation Group, the project manager under the old approach, will not be allowed to compete.

"It would seem someone at the bridge authority doesn't like how the process was going, leaning toward Menn and Figg," said Patrick McNichol, co-chairman of the New Millennium Group's Transportation Action Group. "And now they're changing the rules to produce a different result."

Others involved in the process over the years expressed cautious optimism.

"I'm going to presume this reflects a genuine interest on part of the bridge authority to build something great," said Jeff Belt, a New Millennium Group member and Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy board member who has been active in the Peace Bridge issue since 1999.

It seemed like Parsons Transportation Group, the project manager for the binational environmental review for the Peace Bridge process, was trying to steer the process toward the old 1998 twin span plan, Belt said.

"The public voted and basically said we like designs by Christian Menn and Figg," Belt said.

Buffalo Mayor Anthony M. Masiello said the new design competition strengthens the city's role in picking a signature design.

"It puts the city in a tremendous position to select a magnificent bridge and border crossing," Masiello said. "It makes us a very strong partner and player."

Fort Erie's mayor also endorsed the new method.

"I think the notion of a jury panel to select the final design makes tremendous sense and offers the greatest likelihood of getting the communities to agree on something and people to accept that decision," Mayor Wayne Redekop said.

Peace Bridge Authority Chairman Paul Koessler stressed the public's role in picking that plaza design, and said that positive experience paved the way for using the same method for the bridge design.

"It was not hard to do," Koessler said of leaving the design choice to a jury outside its control.

The authority in January will send letters to qualified bridge design firms, asking if they want to participate in the competition. The group spearheading the bridge expansion -- composed of officials from the Peace Bridge Authority, City of Buffalo and Town of Fort Erie -- will select up to five firms to compete.

Starting in March or April, the selected firms will have four to five months to develop proposals.

Two juries will evaluate their entries.

One group of jurors will score entries for aesthetics.

The mayors -- without any say from the Peace Bridge Authority -- will choose who sits on the jury. Not all of the details have been decided, but 16 people are expected to sit on the panel, eight from Canada and eight from the United States.

Rienas said he thought members of the New Millennium Group, Buffalo Olmsted Conservancy and neighborhood groups would be logical choices for the jury.

"But we're not going to predetermine who the juries are going to be," Rienas said. In addition to the aesthetics jury, another group -- which will have equal weight -- will evaluate the entries to make sure they meet the technical and cost requirements. These jurors will be picked by transportation agencies on both sides of the border, with some input from the bridge authority.

e-mail: plakamp@buffnews.com

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