On Monday, federal officials of both the United States and Canada met at the Peace Bridge to mark the launch of a long planned preclearance pilot program, in which diesel trucks will be inspected in Canada before being again inspected on the United States side of the bridge.
The event was framed by federal officials as a bold achievement that is vital to cross border trade, and also as an effort to improve severe air quality conditions on the West Side of Buffalo, which suffers from a childhood asthma epidemic in addition to elevated rates of cancer, stroke, and neurological disorders.
At the event, Senator Charles Schumer and Congressman Brian Higgins reiterated questionable claims about the Peace Bridge’s preclearance program, which residents have long contended are “disingenuous and propagandizing” statements.
Both officials were asked to respond to residents’ concerns that increased truck processing capacity will result in more diesel emissions being pushed by lake effect winds into broad swaths of the city. Residents make the argument that increased capacity will lead to an increased volume of trucks, which – despite being ‘precleared’ in Canada – will still require a final clearance in the United States. They suspect that the plan will only create more trucks idling for longer periods on both sides of the border.
“No one – nobody – is saying that this preclearance program would make the air quality situation worse. Inspecting the trucks in Canada, where there is more space, will ease the impact of diesel exhaust compared to inspecting those trucks in the United States, in close proximity to a residential neighborhood,” said Senator Schumer. “This is going to reduce pollution, because we are reducing congestion.”
Dr. Jamson Lwebuga-Mukasa, who has published peer-reviewed studies linking the West Side’s asthma epidemic to diesel carcinogens emanating from the Peace Bridge, very much disagrees. He has argued that the lake effect winds will simply blow the diesel particulates over the river and into the city, continuing to detrimentally impact public health. He has also disagreed with the idea that expanded truck processing capacity will lead to lower emissions. Instead, he has argued that truck volumes will increase until capacity is maxed out, negating any positive effect from reduced congestion and “improved flow,” as the Senator suggests.
“How does a preclearance program in Canada improve traffic flow and reduce congestion?” asks Kathy Mecca, the longtime West Side activist. “I’m concerned that there will be bottlenecks and logistical confusion, like there was in Blaine, WA.”
“I asked [General Manager] Ron Reinas, ‘how does precelearnce improve our quality of life?,’ and he responded, ‘it doesn’t,’” recalls Mecca. “When I asked, ‘how will it improve our air quality?,’ he responded, ‘it doesn’t.’”
“This preclearance program is going to help us keep the Buffalo Bills here; it’s going to help us keep the Sabers here; it’s going to help sell more tickets for Jet Blue,” Higgins said, repeating a claim for which he had been previously ridiculed.
Residents say that Higgins has a repeated pattern of conflating Canadian shoppers, concert goers, tourists, and airport travelers with diesel trucks. Of course, Canadians who dine at our restaurants, use our airport, attend our sporting events, or frequent our museums are traveling in passenger cars. Those residents contend that a truck ban at the Peace Bridge could have a very positive economic impact because those vehicles see Buffalo as a destination rather than a thoroughfare. Banning the trucks would make passenger vehicle crossings extremely convenient, they say.
“Higgins, Schumer, et. al. are locked in an endless cycle of government doublespeak. It is untrue. It’s simpleminded. It’s tiresome. No attempt at mitigation will restore the health of this neighborhood. If implemented, these measures will only bring more diesel traffic into this densely populated urban environment. No matter how swiftly the traffic moves, the toxic threat remains. Schumer says ‘it’s about the economy.’ Whose economy?” asks Peter Certo, a long time West Side resident.
“Certainly not ours, as 90% of the 3,000-plus trucks a day that cross here are bound for points beyond. The only mark they leave here is on our overburdened infrastructure. ‘It was worth waiting for’ Schumer tells us; but is it worth dying for? Because until the trucks are gone from the Peace Bridge, that is the fate for the West Side of Buffalo.”
Former Buffalo Mayor Anthony Masiello, now on the governing board of the Public Bridge Authority and a lobbyist with the firm Masiello, Martucci, Calabrese & Associates, was in attendance. He is thought to have the Governor’s ear. Masiello grew up on the West Side, and when he got into politics, he considered it his political base. Longtime residents wonder why the former Mayor hasn’t used his influence with the Governor to sway his understanding of the Peace Bridge issue in its entirety.
Sam Hoyt, who represented the West Side for 19 years in the State Assembly before being appointed Governor Cuomo’s top economic development official in Western New York, was also at the event. Hoyt has promoted himself as the “Regional President” of Empire State Development, insisting that the position’s original title – State Vice President for the Western Region – didn’t appropriately convey his stature.
Hoyt is credited with instigating a months-long dispute with his Canadian counterparts on the PBA’s governing board, in a Cuomo Administration effort to seize control of upwards of $100 million in construction contracting in and around the Peace Bridge’s American plaza. The tension was still obvious at the event, as Ron Rienas (the PBA’s General Manager who Hoyt had insisted on firing) and Chairman Anthony Annunziata, both Canadians, did not occupy the same half of the room as Hoyt for the duration of the event.
It is unclear whether or not Hoyt has articulated West Side residents’ concerns to Governor Cuomo. Many suspect that Hoyt lacks the self-confidence to command a negotiating posture with the Governor; while others suggest that he sees his role as a ‘yes man,’ working at Cuomo’s behest rather than on behalf of the public’s interests.
Assemblyman Sean Ryan, Hoyt’s protégé and his appointed successor, also appeared in support of the press event.
Conspicuously, Governor Cuomo did not appear at the event, though he was in Buffalo on Monday and has been a major proponent of the preclearance program. He has also made the claim that the program will improve air quality on the West Side.