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Archive: Misinformation is the game

Originally published Sept. 2, 2005
Tom Lewis thanked the 80 or so people who took a July 27 bus tour that he planned for the opportunity to “clear up misinformation” about a proposed highway bridge near the International Railroad Bridge and all the while piling it on higher and deeper.

The IRR corridor — as it is called — was dismissed by the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority while it sought solutions to capacity problems at the Peace Bridge. It was too expensive and there were environmental obstacles.

All the agencies involved dismissed it — not the least of which was the Federal Highways Administration, the lead U.S. government agency on the bridge expansion project.

It’s wasteful to create interchanges at the I-190 in the U.S. and at Bowen Road and the QEW in Canada along with a highway system through the middle of north end Fort Erie.

All the supporting infrastructure, on the Canadian side at least, now exists at the Peace Bridge site, the location where the PBA would like to expand.

But a company from the U.S., the Detroit International Bridge Company which owns the Ambassador Bridge, says it is feasible and even desirable to build a bridge at the IRR corridor.

They want to sell you a bridge.

It is a delicious metaphor and especially sumptuous when the phrase “clear up misinformation” is thrown into the mix.

Let’s look at one point of misinformation to start and go on to others later.

Lewis — the municipal councillor for Ward 6 (Crystal Beach) — now has a new title on his business card. He’s a “planner” with Avalon Consulting Professionals of Ontario, part of a consortium of companies that includes American Consulting Engineers of Florida, American Consulting Professionals of Michigan and American Consulting Professionals of New York.

Avalon (whose name is derived from a mythical ocean island where King Arthur is buried) hired Lewis as director of community relations in May. The company was set up ostensibly to perform all kinds of engineering work, but its reason for being is the Ambassador Niagara Signature Bridge project.

And now Lewis is a planner. It’s a title that normally requires university education and certification with the profession. The last Fort Erie heard (during a town council meeting no less) was that his educational background was in international business.

Well, presumably he did plan the bus tour, so he’s a planner Julie McCoy on the Love Boat is a planner.

Anybody can call himself a planner, but when one works for a firm that’s involved in land-use planning, the use of the term carries with it meanings that do not exist in Lewis’ case.

That’s misinformation.

However, this is not all about Lewis. This is about the efforts of individuals — both personal and corporate — who have spent money, time and energy to restrict the flow of money, goods and people across the Niagara River between two great nations, arguably the most important alliance in the world.

The Introductions

The Peace Bridge is operated by the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority — often called the Peace Bridge Authority. It is an independent corporate body whose board of directors is appointed by various government agencies in Canada and the United States. It is not a government body.

A franchise — or exclusive right — to operate an international crossing within a six-mile radius of where the  Peace Bridge now stands was granted in 1923 by the Parliament of Canada to the private corporation that sought to build the bridge. The franchise was extended to the PBA when it took over the bridge after the original company failed during the Depression of the 1930s. It was reconfirmed by the Minister of Transport in November 2004.

The franchise was created to protect investors in the bridge construction and underscored the government’s belief in the necessity of a bridge and its economic security.

The federal Minister of Transport appoints five Canadians, and New York state authorities appoint five Americans — two by the governor, and one each by the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, the Department of Transport and the Attorney-General.

Canadian board members currently are John A. Lopinsky (the 2005 chairman), Deanna Di Martile, Peter Caperchione, Dr. Patricia K. Teal and Patricia Anzovino. Their U.S. counterparts are Paul J. Koessler (the vice-chairman), Mary Martino, Kenneth Schoetz, Gerald Lewandowski and Thomas Madison.

Operations are managed by its general manager, Ron Rienas, a certified urban planner who for 12 years was the planning director for the Town of Fort Erie.

The PBA’s sole purpose is to operate an international bridge between Buffalo and Fort Erie. It maintains the bridge, collects tolls and leases property to governments, the Duty Free shop, brokerages and the use of the communications conduit that runs underneath the bridge. It would like to expand bridge capacity through construction of either a second span or a larger replacement.

The Boys from Detroit

Linking Detroit and Windsor is the Ambassador Bridge which turns a large profit on $60 million in revenue for one man, Manuel J. Moroun who sits on the throne of a billion-dollar-plus empire.

Under the umbrella of his privately-owned holding company, CenTra Inc., Moroun’s business concerns include the fifth largest trucking company in the U.S. (among others), a logistics company, customs brokerages and the Ammex duty free store which includes a gas station at the Detroit end of the bridge. These provide him with more than $1 billion in revenue, according to Forbes magazine.

He owns a 40 percent stake in PAM Transportation Services with revenue in 2003 of $249 million. Unknown revenues are accrued from his interests in real estate, banking and insurance.

The sole purpose of CenTra is to earn a profit.

Moroun is in his late 70s. His son Matthew is in his early 30s and is the vice-chairman of the enterprise which was founded by his grandfather.

Fronting the Ambassador Bridge operations is Dan Stamper, president of the Detroit International Bridge Company and the Canadian Transit Company, of which, until late last fall, former provincial cabinet minister Remo Mancini was the executive vice-president.

Thomas “Skip” McMahon is in charge of bridge operations and special projects and recently has been called “director of community relations” in news reports.

An entity was set up not long after the PBA announced its expansion plans in 1999 and some Americans were calling for a grand replacement called a “signature” bridge. The entity is called the Ambassador Niagara Signature Bridge Group, fronted by James B. Kane, a former aide to U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York.

Fast-forward to 2005 and Avalon is set up in a Jarvis Street office. People are invited to tour the IRR corridor where a numbered Ontario corporation had anonymously purchased some property over the past couple of years.

This company’s only visible links to the Ambassador Bridge were a head office shared with one of Moroun’s trucking companies in Brampton, Central-McKinley, and its sole director and officer who works at the Ambassador Bridge.

Kane said after that link was revealed that the company had not been trying to hide anything. It was being completely up-front but caution is required when dealing with real estate purchases.

Lewis told the tour group that the franchise does not exist — which is the company line — and the Ambassador has the right to build a bridge because the franchise is not mentioned in the “bonding document.”

The document is like a prospectus which outlines in great detail the financial position of the PBA, what it does, the value of the investment in the bonds and more.

Lewis obviously missed the sixth paragraph on Page 36: “Since 1923, the Authority and its predecessor company . . . have held pursuant to Canadian law an exclusive franchise under Canadian law to construct and operate a bridge across the Niagara River.” It goes on to detail the six-mile radius and its provisions.

Further misinformation emanated from an earlier “environmental tour.” How or by whom it originated is unknown, and the source would not say. At least one tour-taker was told the Peace Bridge has issued $400 million in bonds and that they are held by financier Warren Buffett.

The Buffett connection is interesting because he once owned a 25 per cent stake in the Ambassador Bridge and Moroun out maneuvered him for control in 1979. Buffett also has the Buffalo News in his empire. The News has not given the Ambassador proposal much ink at all. The implication of course is that Buffett is trying to get some licks in on Moroun.

The amount misses the mark by one zero. The PBA’s bond issue is $44,120,000. Buffett does not own the bonds, said PBA general manager Ron Rienas. They are favoured by such entities as pension funds and the like.

The PBA is issuing bonds this year to refund those issued in 1995 to take advantage of lower interest rates and save “several million dollars” in interest, he said.

Misinformation runs rampant through the Ambassador bridge proposal. Instead of clearing it up, Lewis does nothing but add to it.

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