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Peace Bridge officials have scrapped their design selection work of the past three years and will begin anew in January.

They will throw out the results of the public voting in May.

They will throw out four finalist bridge concepts -- two involving replacement spans and two calling for a companion bridge.

They also will throw out the celebrated design team of engineers that was supposed to work on what kind of structure to build across the Niagara River.

In short, collaboration and popularity votes are out.

Now competition is in.

In January, the Peace Bridge Authority intends to hold a design competition, which authority officials hope will produce a better solution that wins public acceptance.

The competition among engineering firms will replace the old approach, involving an array of engineering firms and consultants led by a project manager, which many contend moved too slowly and failed to produce a dramatic signature design.

"We think that there were some flaws in the process before, and this is an effort to improve it," said Ron Rienas, the authority's general manager. "Why continue on a path that we feel isn't going to give us the best result?"

Even the non-binding public polling that drew nearly 5,000 votes did not command public respect, Rienas said.

Instead, the approach prompted "a feeling there was some form of predetermination on the part of the board, which there clearly isn't. But a design competition will certainly dispel that," Rienas said.

Mayor Anthony M. Masiello says he supports the new method.

"The competition will focus some of the best bridge designers in the world on Buffalo, and to me that's good," Masiello said.

"It's a logical finish to this process," said Paul J. Koessler of Buffalo, chairman of the bridge authority.

The change, however, puzzles some people who said they had seen improvements in the authority's dealings with the public.

"It will take longer, cost more and reduce public involvement," said Clinton Brown, co-founder of SuperSpan Upper Niagara.

"When the authority has had such a great track record recently of engaging the public, it's difficult to believe delegating to outsiders will speed up and improve the process," Brown said.

Despite the change -- approved by the authority's board in a closed meeting last week -- the work isn't starting from scratch, Rienas said.

The effort produced so far by Peace Bridge consultants was needed to compile a draft environmental impact statement, whose publication date has been pushed back to January from the original due date in October.

Even if the authority had wanted to launch a design competition a year ago, it would have had to wait until the draft document was published.

"The work that has been done so far is not considered to be wasted work, because that work will go into the information that's provided to the competing firms," Rienas said.

The competition may delay selection of a design, but it will not delay the overall expansion study, which also includes the location of the plaza on the U.S. side of the border, Rienas said.

"It's not going to delay the project," Rienas said. "We think this decision is so important that we (must) get it right."

And what about the voting results -- which showed Christian Menn's two-tower, cable-stayed design a clear favorite as a Peace Bridge replacement?

That will be considered "background information that will be used by the competing firms, and they'll choose how meaningful or how meaningless it is," Rienas said.

A competition to pick a design also will require answering some fundamental questions: Will the bridge be a companion or replacement span? How many lanes will a companion bridge carry?

Those questions should be answered by March and ratified by the governing bodies in Buffalo and Fort Erie, Ont., Rienas said.

"These decisions have to be made before you can do a design competition," Rienas said. "We can't run a design competition saying we don't know if it's going to be replacement or companion."

The authority will send letters to qualified bridge design firms, asking if they want to participate in the competition. Up to five firms will be picked to compete.

"I want to make it very clear this is not a design competition similar to what was run before, where anybody could submit a design and draw it out on napkins," Rienas said.

The competition winner will receive the contract to design the bridge, potentially worth tens of millions of dollars.

"So they're going to put forth their best effort to win this competition," Rienas said.

The group spearheading the bridge expansion -- composed of officials from the Peace Bridge Authority, City of Buffalo and Town of Fort Erie -- will select the firms to compete.

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

Two juries will score their entries.

One group -- picked by the Buffalo and Fort Erie officials, but nobody from the bridge authority -- will evaluate the entries for aesthetics.

The other 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, and the authority will be involved to a small degree, Rienas said.

Under the previous approach, Vincent P. "Jake" Lamb of Parsons Transportation Group, then project manager for the binational environmental review planned for the Peace Bridge project, put together a team of architects to work on what kind of structure to build. Christian Menn was retained as a consultant. Figg Engineering Group of Tallahassee, Fla., was brought on board.

The authority also selected Modjeski and Masters of Poughkeepsie and Buckland & Taylor of North Vancouver, British Columbia, as a team to serve as another bridge design consultant. The Copenhagen, Denmark, firm of Dissing and Weitling worked with these two firms.

Expecting the firms to work together and jointly produce an excellent design "was pretty idealistic," Rienas said.

Lamb declined to comment Friday.

A bigger problem was how they were selected. Parsons selected them -- not Buffalo or Fort Erie, Rienas said.

"I was never really comfortable with the process," said Rienas, who became general manager after the process started.

"I think it was well-intentioned, but I don't think the end result would have been one that would have been accepted," he said.


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