The planned changes to the Peace Bridge plaza and short-lived discussions among federal officials to move trucks off the bridge have divided the Buffalo Common Council.
On one side is North Council Member Joseph Golombek, who has taken up the cause of a group of neighbors concerned about high asthma rates and other health problems for people who live near the bridge. On the other is Niagara Council Member David A. Rivera, who represents those neighbors.
At times the Council has spoken with one voice on Peace Bridge matters, such as its past calls for the removal of trucks from the bridge. But in the last month, the Council has been divided, torn between Golombek’s aggressive stand in calling for a federal probe of whether state and federal agencies followed federal environmental laws when conducting construction projects at the bridge, and deference to Rivera, who represents the bridge area and supports Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s plan to connect bridge traffic with the Niagara Thruway and remove Baird Drive from Front Park.
“Sometimes we write things and we really don’t understand how the process works,” Rivera said Tuesday, referring to Golombek’s resolution, which the Council refrained from acting on. It called for the connection project to be halted until the requested investigations by the White House Council on Environmental Quality and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have been completed.
Golombek thinks a federal investigation into whether environmental laws were followed is necessary and that a Council inquiry is not sufficient.
“We need somebody who has the teeth to force people to come in, if need be, to answer very difficult questions, that understand the questions better than we or our Council understand them,” he said.
The Council has frequently discussed The Buffalo News’ reporting on short-lived discussions among federal agencies in 2012 about the possibility of removing trucks from the Peace Bridge in order to improve the environment around the bridge. Fillmore Council Member David A. Franczyk said the stories have changed his opinion of Golombek’s resolution, and he called the stories “an eye-opener and a shock.”
The Council so far has been cautious, issuing split decisions to Golombek and Rivera, or sending initiatives of both lawmakers back to committee for further discussion, which happened Tuesday as part of a deal brokered by Majority Leader Demone A. Smith.
There is some debate, even among Council members, about just how much power city lawmakers have over projects undertaken by state and federal authorities to improve traffic flow on the bridge. If the binational authority that governs the bridge wants to expand and acquire a city street, the Council would have to agree. But for projects the authority wants to complete on its own property, the Council has no vote.
Golombek and Rivera have sparred during several recent Council meetings over what public message the legislative body should send to state and federal officials involved in decision-making on the future of the bridge.
The Council typically defers to the lawmakers who represent an area before voting on an issue, but members seem to agree that issues created by the bridge go beyond the boundaries of a single legislative district.
In a letter to President Obama, Golombek is calling for a resurrection of the federal agencies’ investigation into the environmental conditions at the bridge and how they can be addressed. Separately, he also is asking for five federal officials to answer questions from the Council.
Rivera in the past has sponsored measures calling for all truck traffic to be removed from the bridge and said he is concerned about air quality. He said he would not take up the cause of a single group, such as the neighbors concerned about diesel fumes and the health problems they create. He believes the state project to connect the bridge with the Niagara Thruway will move traffic away from the neighborhood and will help mitigate diesel fumes, a position that is not universally shared.
“I won’t fight every single project,” he said.
His resolution calls for federal agencies to provide documents and discuss why talks on removing truck traffic from the bridge were cut short.
In a lengthy exchange during a caucus meeting Monday, Rivera made the distinction between the federal government’s brief discussions about moving trucks off the bridge, which took place in the context of the government’s environmental justice initiatives, and the state’s plans to connect the bridge to the highway.
Rivera said the two situations should not be lumped together and said he supports the state’s plans, which Cuomo has made a high priority.
But that support has put him at odds with neighbors who believe the only solution to the high asthma rates around the bridge is to remove the trucks entirely.
Columbus Parkway resident Elizabeth Martina last week asked Rivera during a committee meeting if he ever got a call from anyone in Cuomo’s office about his support for Peace Bridge projects.
Rivera said he supports the project to connect bridge traffic to the Niagara Thruway, which is being done by the state Department of Transportation and Federal Highway Administration.
“I make my decisions based on the merits of what I feel,” he replied.