Lawyers for SuperSpan have told the U.S. Coast Guard that the Peace Bridge Authority has systematically evaded the laws requiring a thorough environmental review of the authority's bridge expansion plan.
The lawyers warned that the authority's conduct leaves its plan to build a twin bridge next to the Peace Bridge "open to significant, costly and time-consuming" citizen lawsuits.
The authority has applied to the Coast Guard for a permit to build the twin bridge; the application is under review by the Coast Guard's bridge office in Cleveland.
Brian Lipke, chairman of the Peace Bridge Authority, said the agency has complied with all environmental laws in its application.
He called the SuperSpan complaint an unfortunate move that could hurt Buffalo by delaying the project, which would expand the capacity of the bridge.
Attorney Robert E. Knoer was retained by SuperSpan Upper Niagara LLP, which opposes the authority's twin bridge plan and wants the authority or some other agency to build a world-class signature bridge between Buffalo and Fort Erie, Ont., to write a critique of the authority's procedures in the bridge expansion project.
Knoer charged that the authority "at every turn attempted to evade its duty under state and federal laws."
His comments were forwarded to the Coast Guard's Cleveland district office as part of the citizen comments that the federal government is required to invite.
Nearly 70 pages long, the filing by SuperSpan Chairman John S. Cullen and Knoer is a road map for anyone who wants to sue the authority over its plans to build a twin bridge and redesign the bridge plaza in Buffalo's Front Park.
Cullen said he has no knowledge of anyone planning to sue the authority or the state over their alleged failure to conduct a detailed environmental study before carrying out a project of this scope.
The authority has applied for a Coast Guard waiver from federal environmental laws so that the $82 million project can be started.
"We believe, and we've had our attorneys looking at this since day 1, we've not violated any steps in the procedure, period," Lipke said. "We've abided by every single step. We knew there was a time period that was available for citizens to comment.
"But very, very, very late in the day yesterday (Thursday), we received a call that said this (SuperSpan) document would be filed with the Coast Guard, and at that point I had no time to consult with the board members or counsel.
"My concern is that this potential legal battle will be very detrimental no matter which side is proven right. And delays are going to be costly to the community.
"We want the best possible bridge. The authority has been put in the position of being the bad guy. I don't know how that happened. And I wish I knew what to do about it."
Meanwhile, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., has asked the Coast Guard to extend the comment period, which ended Thursday, for another 90 days.
Asked if the authority would oppose Moynihan's request, Lipke said, "It's up to the Coast Guard to decide which is the correct path to follow on extending the comment period."
Approval of Moynihan's request would delay approval of the authority's plans.
Coast Guard spokesman Jack O'Dell said the officials to whom Moynihan addressed his appeal will not be available to comment until Monday.
Moynihan favors the idea of a signature bridge, and his offices here and in Buffalo have been used as resources for proponents of a more modern bridge.
Knoer said the authority "attempted to ram through a project based on a faulty environmental review."
"The authority does not even attempt to hide this disrespect for its legitimate responsibility," he said.
"In meetings as early as August 1995, the authority declared that its policy would be 'follow the lowest path legally allowable' in conducting its environmental review."
Knoer said the authority may be most vulnerable because of its insistence that the new bridge and the plan to expand the toll plaza in Front Park are separate and distinct projects.
"How anyone familiar with the Peace Bridge and its surrounding area could dissociate the bridge from the parkland, the residences and the commercial area, is incredible," Cullen said in a cover letter to the Coast Guard.