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Anger follows report on truck-removal issue at Peace Bridge

WASHINGTON – Environmentalists reacted with anger Sunday after The Buffalo News reported that federal officials considered but quickly abandoned plans to remove truck traffic from the Peace Bridge. They said the saga shows that their worries about air quality on Buffalo’s West Side are justified.

But supporters of improvements at the Peace Bridge plaza were just as angry over the fact that those federal officials considered and killed that plan to move truck traffic to the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge without consulting any state or local officials.

Both sides said, though, that The News articles provide good reasons for the state to consider postponing its Tuesday deadline for public comment on an environmental-impact statement on state plans to build new access ramps to and from the Peace Bridge.

“We need to be given the time to ask whether any of these projects really make sense,” said Erin J. Heaney, executive director of the Clean Air Coalition of Western New York. “Given what we just found out, we need more time for the community to weigh in.”

Meanwhile, two supporters of improvements at the Peace Bridge plaza – Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, and Common Council Member David A. Rivera of the Niagara District – said they would be comfortable with moving that deadline for comment to Feb. 28, as environmentalists have asked. “I don’t see any problem extending it, given what’s occurred here,” Higgins said of the deadline. The decision to extend the comment period would be made in Albany. But Richard Azzopardi, a spokesman for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, declined to comment on a possible extension or on any other aspects of The News’ report.

The News reported Sunday that the U.S. General Services Administration, which leases facilities at the Peace Bridge for use by customs agents, briefly led an interagency effort to examine air-pollution problems in the neighborhood near the Peace Bridge as an issue of environmental justice.

Concerned about research showing that childhood asthma rates in the neighborhood near the bridge are nearly four times the national average, GSA officials briefly considered a plan to shift truck traffic – and the diesel pollution it produces – to the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge.

GSA officials killed that plan, though, after Denise L. Pease, head of the agency’s New York office, protested. In intergovernmental emails obtained by The News, Pease noted that the Peace Bridge is “a SENSITIVE regional project.”

The News also reported Sunday that less than three months after discussing removing truck traffic from the Peace Bridge, the GSA gave a quick and comparatively cursory environmental review to a project that will expand the customs house at the bridge.

The articles raised questions about whether that action violated the National Environmental Policy Act, which calls for government capital-improvement projects to be reviewed in total, rather than piecemeal.

Critics contend that the separate environmental reviews for the customs house and the new ramps at the Peace Bridge constitute the “segmenting” of projects, which is prohibited under federal regulations.

“This is why we need to get an investigation done,” said North Council Member Joseph Golombek Jr., whose measure calling for a federal probe of environmental reviews at the bridge was tabled by the Council last week.

Meanwhile, Kathleen R. Mecca, the Columbus Park Neighborhood Association activist who has been leading the fight against truck traffic at the bridge, said The News articles should prompt Higgins and New York’s senators to call for a halt to all federal and state projects at the Peace Bridge.

“There is mounting evidence that both levels of government are segmenting Peace Bridge expansion plans,” she said. “As our federal representatives, they should demand a full investigation into the truth behind GSA’s actions, and the dubious environmental review practices.”

Asked about the review processes, Higgins stressed that he’s “not an environmental lawyer” and therefore uncertain of the legal particulars surrounding the Peace Bridge environmental reviews.

But Ron Rienas, general manager of the Peace Bridge Authority, insisted that the separate environmental reviews are proper because the customs house expansion and the new ramps are separate projects being built by different entities.

“You can segment projects so long as they are not connected to anything else,” Rienas said. “Our customs house project has absolutely nothing to do with the state’s Gateway Connections Improvement Project. If the state doesn’t proceed, that doesn’t affect our project at all.”

Rienas was just one of several supporters of Peace Bridge expansion plans who criticized the secrecy of the GSA effort to consider removing trucks from the bridge.

“I wouldn’t have known about it if I hadn’t read The Buffalo News,” said Rivera, whose Council district includes the Peace Bridge. “It’s frustrating. If there were discussions about it, why didn’t we know?”

Higgins wants an answer to the same question, and said he is considering asking for a federal investigation into the abandoned GSA-led effort to consider taking trucks off the bridge. “Someone in the federal government has to get to the bottom of this,” he said. “So many agencies were involved, they discussed such a proposal and no one from the local community was brought into this discussion?”

Higgins also defended the environmental impact of the various projects planned for the Peace Bridge, which not only include the customs house and new access ramps, but also a plan to be implemented soon that will pre-clear cargo traffic on the Fort Erie, Ont., side of the bridge. Also, Higgins and Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., are fighting to increase the number of customs agents at the bridge in order to cut down on wait times there.

Higgins said that all of those efforts aim to reduce the amount of time that diesel trucks spend idling at the bridge – and it’s the fumes from idling trucks that can create asthma problems.

“The real solution to the problem is in front of us, and that is to build in more capacity,” he said.

But Mecca – who has long supported removing truck traffic from the bridge – demanded a federal investigation into whether state and federal officials want to “fast-track” bridge improvements without seriously considering their environmental impact.

“The political practice of using the health of innocent children on Buffalo’s West Side as human specimens must be stopped,” Mecca said. “This is Buffalo, New York’s ‘Bridge-Gate.’ ”