Originally published by Jerry Zremski of the Buffalo News
American-bound cargo traffic could be cleared on the Canadian side of the Peace Bridge as early as next year under an agreement between the Canadian and U.S. governments that was expected to be finalized today.
American-bound cargo traffic could be cleared on the Canadian side of the Peace Bridge as early as next year under an agreement between the Canadian and U.S. governments that was expected to be finalized today. Sharon Cantillon / Buffalo News file photo

WASHINGTON – A U.S-Canadian agreement to pre-inspect U.S.-bound truck traffic in Fort Erie, Ont., could mean there’s no need to add truck inspection lanes on the American side of the Peace Bridge, officials said Thursday as they lauded a deal that aims to vastly reduce congestion at the border.

The deal is an experiment, in which two U.S. border crossings – first in Blaine, Wash., and then at the Peace Bridge – will test whether it’s quick and efficient to inspect cargo headed for America in Canada rather than the U.S.

Six months after the experiment begins in Washington State later this year, some of the cargo that’s now inspected in Buffalo instead will be examined on the Canadian side of the Peace Bridge by U.S. agents.

And if it works, by 2015 a plan could be in place to move the first-line inspections of all truck cargo to the much larger Peace Bridge property in Fort Erie – which would mean the Peace Bridge would not have to construct additional inspection booths on the American side, said Ron Rienas, general manager of the Peace Bridge Authority.

While it’s only an experiment, local lawmakers spoke of the cross-border inspection deal as if it were a sure bet.

“It’s a win in every way,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat who has been pushing for such a deal for nearly a decade. “It means a smaller plaza on the U.S. side. It’s going to mean much shorter waits not only for trucks, but cars as well, because when cars and trucks are intermingled, they get backed up together. It’s going to mean more jobs for our economy, because the easier the flow, the more trucks come here. And its going to mean less pollution.”

Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, agreed, saying it’s important not only that the cross-border inspection plan work out, but that the Buffalo Peace Bridge plaza be improved as well.

“Our challenge with the Peace Bridge is not one-dimensional,” Higgins said. “It’s a physical capacity issue. We need this plan, we need the new plaza, we need more inspection booths, because we anticipate more traffic, not less.”

Yet there’s a great interplay between the success of the cross-border inspection plan and the need for expansion on the U.S. side of the Peace Bridge, Rienas said.

If the experiment works, a huge part of the Peace Bridge’s expansion – a $25 million to $30 million project to build several additional truck inspection lanes – would take place in Fort Erie, he said.

Doing that makes sense, he said, because the Peace Bridge Authority owns 70 acres of land in Canada and only 16 in Buffalo, where only two or three inspection lanes could be built without the acquisition of more land.

Such proposals to expand the U.S. plaza have met stiff resistance from West Side neighborhoods concerned about the impact of truck fumes on nearby residents.

The plan to try to move most of the idling trucks to Canada won’t resolve the neighborhood concerns, said Kathleen Mecca, president of the Columbus Park Association.

“Regardless of where they’re beingv inspected, they’re still going over the bridge, through the neighborhood and through the central city,” she said.

Even if all the primary inspections for U.S.-bound cargo are eventually moved to Canada, the Peace Bridge Authority still will have to build a new secondary inspection facility in Buffalo for the 10 percent or so of truck traffic that require a closer look, Rienas said. Plans to redraw the roadways around the Peace Bridge to restore Front Park are moving forward as well.

Schumer and other lawmakers initially proposed a “shared border management” plan in which those secondary inspections also would be done in Canada, but efforts on that more comprehensive plan fell apart years ago.

Upon the prodding of Schumer and Higgins, though, a narrower pre-inspection plan came to be included in the “Beyond the Border Action Plan” unveiled by President Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper in February 2011.

At the time, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano voiced skepticism about trying pre-inspections at a major border crossing such as the Peace Bridge, but on Thursday, both she and Canadian Public Safety Minister Vic Toews signed a memorandum of understanding mandating just that.

Key to the binational deal is an agreement by the Canadian government to pursue legislation that would allow American customs inspectors to carry guns in Canada. Canada’s previous refusal to allow American officers to be armed while serving in Canada had stymied earlier moves to allow U.S. cargo inspections to take place across the border.

email: jzremski@buffnews.com