A large contingent of Grand Island residents played a big role in pushing the International Railroad Bridge to the No. 2 site for consideration as a new Niagara River crossing Saturday, during the fourth workshop of the Peace Bridge Authority's binational review.
But the new public ranking, up from 18 out of 30, is tentative because more than 300 of the 719 people who showed up for the session in the auditorium of WNED-TV decided to delay casting their votes to further consider the options. Their mail-in ballots must be postmarked by Dec. 17.
Agreement on a final bridge design location is months away, with several more public discussions planned.
It was clear from the comments at Saturday's gathering that Grand Island residents do not want to see a bridge anywhere near the town.
Ranking first place in the incomplete voting were proposals to move the U.S. plaza north of its current site at the Peace Bridge. In third place were alternative possibilities to move the plaza east of the existing site.
Vincent P. "Jake" Lamb, manager for the binational review, said he welcomed the added voices from Grand Island in the site-selection discussion.
"I think the public involvement process is working as intended. We're involving more and more citizens, and that's good. This was the largest-attended meeting yet," Lamb said.
Erie County Legislator Charles M. Swanick was one of more intense voices heard Saturday.
"What's sad about this process more than anything else is neighbors and communities being pitted against each other. Grand Island has already been cut in half with the New York State Thruway. Any proposal to further cut up Grand Island is simply unacceptable," said Swanick, whose district includes the island.
His comments were greeted with applause, but organizers of the review process later pointed out that a bridge involving Grand Island was removed from consideration weeks ago.
Lamb said he does not view the public dialogue process as pitting communities against each other.
"I view it as bringing the various communities in the region that would be affected together to engage in discussions and debate about the issues," he said. "In doing so, we bring many diverse viewpoints into the process, and that is essential for us to have, to assure the solution that's ultimately selected is the best for all concerned."
Swanick also said he opposes building a bridge across the Niagara River just south of Grand Island, which puts him at odds with County Executive Joel A. Giambra and some state lawmakers who want that idea studied.
"That bridge plaza would be within a mile of the region's most industrialized area, with 15,000 to 20,000 good-paying jobs. Increased traffic congestion from that span would significantly jeopardize those jobs," said Swanick, a Kenmore Democrat.
Even the favored Peace Bridge sites have drawbacks, according to residents near that span who are worried about air pollution caused by truck and car exhaust fumes.
That was why the International Railroad Bridge, located near brownfields and a railroad yard in Black Rock, merit additional review, Swanick and others said.
But not everyone was pleased with the railroad bridge idea.
Theresa McKellar, who represents a Canadian business improvement district in Fort Erie, Ont., where the railroad bridge site would be anchored, said health and business concerns are just as important on her side of the border.
"I represent building owners and business owners in the north end of Fort Erie, and there are three elementary schools just blocks away from the International Railroad Bridge site. Please, think about us," McKellar said.
Mark B. Mitskovski, a spokesman for Buffalo's West Side Environmental Defense Fund, said the main health problems facing those who will be near the bridge are asthma-related illnesses.
"The issue is not whether we should shift from the West Side to Grand Island. The problem is diesel trucks. The solution is to find a large enough parcel with the least amount of people," Mitskovski said.
The next public workshop will be held in late January or early February