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PEACE BRIDGE TOLL SITE TO SWITCH
MOVE TO CANADIAN PLAZA WILL TAKE PLACE ON SUNDAY

Toll collection at the Peace Bridge will switch to the Canadian plaza beginning Sunday.

That's the first of several changes this year that bridge officials say will lead to the most significant improvements to the U.S. plaza in decades.

Demolition of toll booths on the Buffalo side of the crossing starts Monday.

"It's kind of a big event to get tolls out of the way there," said Ron Rienas, general manager of the Peace Bridge Authority.

The changes are expected to reduce backups on the Queen Elizabeth Way for those crossing the bridge into Buffalo, and less congestion on the U.S. side should also improve air quality, the authority has said.

New toll booths have been built just beyond the Canadian Customs inspection booths. Toll rates will remain the same, and E-ZPass will work.

Tolls have been collected on the Buffalo side of the Niagara River since the early days of the 78-year-old bridge, and the present configuration of U.S. toll booths dates to the early 1950s.

Work also will begin in a couple of weeks to relocate the duty-free shop on the U.S. plaza. The new shop will be built near Busti Avenue, north of the Peace Bridge gate, where truck drivers now line up to pay commercial tolls.

Relocating the duty-free shop and removing the toll booths will provide room for three additional inspection lanes on the Buffalo-side of the crossing for U.S.-bound traffic.

Construction of the additional lanes and inspection booths is expected to start in July, and they should open by September or October, Rienas said.

The new lanes and booths will be used primarily for trucks, but they will also be used for car inspections when truck volume is light, like on weekends and for Bills and Sabres games, concerts and festivals.

The project is being done in phases; the number of inspection lanes on the U.S. plaza will remain the same throughout the summer of construction, Rienas said.

Rienas said the changes on the U.S. plaza are interim -- expected to last about five years -- and will not shape the outcome of an ongoing study for a new Peace Bridge. The environmental study is expected to recommend whether to keep the U.S. plaza at its existing site or move it somewhere else near the corridor.

Three people who live on the West Side near the Peace Bridge filed a lawsuit last May. They contend the interim work is improper because it comes before the authority completes the court-ordered environmental review of the combined effects of a new bridge, U.S. plaza and connecting roadways.

Rather than alleviate congestion, the changes will increase commercial traffic into the neighborhood, said Mark M. Mitskovski of Busti Avenue, one of the residents who filed the lawsuit.

The lawsuit remains unsettled as lawyers continue fighting over which court should have jurisdiction.

Rienas said the authority is moving ahead with the changes despite the lawsuit.

The interim improvements will not expand the U.S. plaza but reconfigure it to alleviate existing problems on the plaza directly related to homeland security, Rienas has said.

The changes, Rienas said, have "nothing to do with the . . . environmental impact statement or bridge replacement or bridge twinning. These are operational improvements we are doing to reflect the current situation."

e-mail: plakamp@buffnews.com