The general manager of the three international bridges in Niagara County warned Friday that the spans are nearing capacity and impending U.S. immigration changes procedures could cause gridlock.
"If we don't do something soon about national policies, we'll have absolutely clogged arteries," general manager Allen Gandell said at a meeting sponsored by the Niagara Falls Bridge Commission in the Niagara Falls Country Club.
Gandell predicted it could take more than two days to cross the international border at Lewiston or Niagara Falls if controversial Section 110 of the Illegal Immigration Reform Act is allowed to take effect.
That act would require border inspectors to demand proof of citizenship from everybody entering the United States. Every traveler would have to present a passport or other documentation.
The act originally was scheduled to take effect last Oct. 1, but that was postponed because of fears it would cause monumental traffic jams at the Canadian and Mexican borders.
Instead of slowing down the entry procedures at the bridges, Gandell said, the United States should speed them up by establishing a streamlined system such as the Canpass, which is in use at the Whirlpool Rapids Bridge in Niagara Falls.
The Canpass lets those registered in advance to proceed through Canadian Customs inspections almost without stopping.
The Canpass program has attracted more than 40,000 participants at the Whirlpool Rapids Bridge since its inception in the Spring of 1998.
"We're in the stratosphere on numbers," Gandell said. "It's phenomenal. Unfortunately, it's a one-way street."
There is no such program for travelers from Canada to the United States.
John Johnson, regional director of Canada Customs Border Services for Niagara Falls and Fort Erie, Ont., said processing time for Canpass holders has decreased to less than 6 seconds from 25 to 30 seconds.
"Ninety-five percent of the people crossing the border are law-abiding citizens," Gandell said. "Yet, we stop every mom and pop on vacation. At the same time, we have areas where boats cross that are monitored only by a sign asking people to please call when they get in.
"These policies are so inconsistent they're in the twilight zone."
Jack O'Donnell, regional representative for Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-Brooklyn, said Gandell's message would be heard in Washington, D.C., where Schumer is co-author of a bill to repeal the Immigration Reform Act. Schumer was unable to attend Friday's forum because his plane was grounded during the aftermath of Hurricane Floyd, O'Donnell said.
The Bridge Commission said the combined traffic on its Rainbow, Whirlpool Rapids and Lewiston-Queenston bridges makes it the busiest port of entry between the United States and Canada.
The Rainbow Bridge is first in tourism crossings, second to Kennedy International Airport in alien flow and 10th in passenger entries. The Lewiston-Queenston bridge is fourth in commercial entries and ninth in passenger crossings.
Gandell spoke during the first of the commission's Bridging Breakfast Series entitled "One Frontier, Two Countries, Three Bridges."
He also said restrictive inspection policies would threaten the $1 billion-a-day trade exchange between the United State sand Canada at a time when commercial processings increase by 44 trucks a day.