In his Jan. 14 column in the Erie Times-News, “End of the viaduct, new beginning for Erie,” Pat Howard relates Mayor Joe Schember’s reversal of his agreement for a McBride Viaduct public hearing by paraphrasing Schember: “After a years-long public process, no more talk is needed.”
Yes, there has been plenty of talk, but no on-the-record, neutrally moderated public hearing about omissions in the L.R. Kimball study, cost changes, or the 11th hour abandonment of a promised sidewalk — without which children will have to walk along the Bayfront Connector, navigate a blind spot and cross a highway intersection to get to school.
Howard didn’t question Schember’s unsubstantiated remarks that viaduct repairs could cost up to $6 million, and that saving the bridge would require “a massive tax increase.”
Neither is true.
The only document enumerating the costs of stabilizing the viaduct for continued non-vehicular use was prepared by architect Adam Trott. He puts the figure for long-term repair at $3 million, and for as little as $1.7 million he says we can make “essential repairs that stabilize the skin, making the bridge safe for people walking and biking.”
No tax increase is needed to save the bridge because funds can be obtained from existing sources.
The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation reports that the city can have $1.2 million to $1.7 million to start the work. The balance needed is somewhere between $300,000 and $1.8 million, depending on whether you want the minimum repairs or want to make the viaduct look good, too.
Starting this year, the city can submit annual applications to the Metropolitan Planning Organization for a portion of a fund that will generate $15 million over the next decade and is dedicated to repairing infrastructure.
In addition, the city can apply for state, federal and private grants for infrastructure, place-making and public health. Examples are listed at www.erieviaduct.com.
Let’s get some perspective on the amount of money under discussion.
Erie spent $180 million to build the Bayfront Connector — an arterial four-lane highway with dubious benefits for east-siders. The connector divided neighborhoods and attracted 5 million vehicles that spew fumes and noise and occasionally collide with pedestrians. Investing less than 1 percent of that massive budget will create local jobs and help protect our kids.
The viaduct has been called “redundant,” but it’s not.
A tall, healthy white male (our mayor) went for a run along the connector and says he “felt safe.” OK, but his experience of getting exercise is not the same as a child walking to school during a January rush hour.
To many east-side families, the bridge is an essential, useful structure. The folks using the viaduct aren’t showing up at City Hall, but they are voting for the viaduct with their feet.
Howard misses the fact that the decision to demolish was made pre-Emerge 2040 and pre-Erie Refocused back in 2013, without any city planning expertise.
Howard reports Schember has “heard everybody out” but omits that the mayor is ignoring expert advice from Mindy Thompson Fullilove, Toni Griffin, Terry Schwarz and former Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist, who wrote an op-ed for the Erie Times-News saying the viaduct was a “convenient walkway” that should be saved.
Howard didn’t identify respected leaders who support saving the viaduct: former Erie County Executive Judy Lynch; former Mayor Rick Filippi, former County Councilman Jay Breneman, Erie City Council President Sonya Arrington, City Councilwoman Kathy Schaaf, the Rev. Charles Mock, the Rev. Anthony Harris, the Rev. Charles Brock, Gary Horton, Cynthia Muhammad, Joel Deuterman and the late John Horan.
Howard says viaduct supporters are “making the case that preserving the bridge is ... a matter of racial, class and environmental justice” and skims over this weighty assertion as if it doesn’t matter. It matters. Erie, the city ranked as the worst in the country for black Americans, is going to get even worse if the viaduct is demolished.
Charles Buki, co-author of the Erie Refocused plan, said, “With a new council and a new mayor, the Erie community has an opportunity for the viaduct, a potentially significant city asset, to evaluate the many outcomes that could result” by demolishing or rehabbing the bridge. During his time in Erie, Buki observed a “troubling norm” of what was, in Howard’s words, “an insular City Hall.”
Howard didn’t mention that by dismissing Buki’s recommendation to slow the demolition and have “the conversation that should have occurred years ago,” the new leader of City Hall undermined his promise of listening.
Schember wants what is best for the city. If he announces a demolition delay and calls for a public hearing, he would be doing what is best for the city, and he would become Erie’s hero.
Lisa Austin is a professor of art and design at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania. She is a co-founder of CIVITAS and Erie CPR Connect + Respect, which advocates for engaging residents planning for their community, with a first goal of preserving the McBride Viaduct. This article, first published in the Erie Times-News on January 19, 2018, can be found on GoErie with a picture of the author instead of the Viaduct.