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02.22.2010
Erie Connection
New Niagara crossing up in the air
One of Menn's new designs for the Buffalo bridge, a triple-arch design that is considered the front runner.
Courtesy Figg Engineering Group

You know you have a problem when PETA steps in to save your city’s bridge. Last month, the animal rights group sent a letter to the New York State Department of Transportation, seeking to help pay for repairs needed to prevent Buffalo’s Peace Bridge from closing due to its low safety rating. The catch: It would be renamed the “Peace on Your Plate Bridge.”

The offer underscores the urgency with which the state is trying to address safety concerns following a report issued by the state comptroller in January that gave the Peace Bridge, which connects Buffalo and Fort Erie, Ontario, a 3.3 out of 7 rating—lower than that of the Lake Champlain bridge demolished in December because of its condition. Though engineers say the three-lane toll bridge is structurally sound for now, the score indicates serious deterioration for one of the busiest border crossings in the nation.

Menn's original proposal, which drew criticism for being too tall and threatening birds. The original Peace Bridge rises behind its proposed replacement.
Courtesy Buffalo Rising

The safety rating has drawn notice largely due to controversy over the ultimate solution: a companion span that would be constructed parallel to the existing 84-year-old structure. Nearly five years ago, a bi-national design jury recommended a 567-foot-high, two-tower cable stay bridge conceived by Swiss designer Christian Menn. The height of the design drew outcry from environmental groups, and in 2008 the Federal Highway Administration determined that the design would have unacceptable impacts on fish and migratory birds and would have to be reconsidered.

Menn went back to the drawing board with bridge specialists Figg Engineering Group and two avian experts, and last year gained federal approval for five new bridge designs, each with towers or arches lower than 350 feet. Those proposals went on display for public review last month. Favored for its improved environmental impact and its harmony with the five-arch Peace Bridge, the frontrunner is a three-span concrete bridge with arches of graduated heights, the tallest at 226 feet.

Two of Menn's five second-round proposals. The latter comes closest to the designer's original.
Courtesy Figg Engineering Group

State officials insist that federal approval will allow construction to move forward, but some are concerned about air quality in an adjacent historic neighborhood, and the likelihood that more than 100 properties would be in jeopardy. On that front, former Common Council member and State Senator Alfred T. Coppola continues to pursue a lawsuit over the construction of a new home in the bridge plaza development area.

Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, whose district includes the neighborhood in question, had favored a bridge that would replace, rather than span alongside, the Peace Bridge. Preceding the public open house on design proposals, Hoyt told reporters, “While I don’t think we’re going to be on the covers of any great architectural magazines, the current design options are much more impressive than what we were originally talking about.”

Though optimistic about the public response, the state expects more lawsuits from opponents. And as long as travelers expect someone to answer for long delays at the border, Buffalo won’t have much peace on its plate.

Jennifer K. Gorsche