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AS PEACE BRIDGE TOLLBOOTHS FALL, OFFICIALS CRITICIZE PASSPORT PLAN

As Sen. Charles E. Schumer and others watched one barrier fall Monday, they began fighting to keep the federal government from imposing another one at the Peace Bridge.

Demolition of tollbooths on the Buffalo side of the crossing started, to the applause of dignitaries who included Schumer and Mayor Anthony M. Masiello.

But they spent an hour before that talking about how to block the State Department's new policy requiring people crossing the Canadian-American border to show passports as of 2008.

"It's ironic," Schumer said. "The day we are beginning to take down the tollbooths, which will allow better commerce across the border, we are talking about this proposal, which would slow things down," Schumer said.

"We need both safety and commerce," Schumer told business, cultural and tourism leaders during a meeting in the Peace Bridge Authority's administrative building.

"No one is saying do nothing," the senator said, "but there are other alternates."

Some of the nation's Southern border communities issue border-crossing cards, which are easier to obtain and less expensive than passports, he said.

Those attending the meeting told the senator the passport rule would be economically damaging. If it is enforced, many residents from both Western New York and Southern Ontario would no longer make occasional trips across the border if they choose not to get a passport.

"We have about 2,500 Canadian students who commute back and forth during the year," said Sister Denise A. Roche, president of D'Youville College. "I like the crossing card. I think it would be very good and alleviate a lot of problems at the border."

Thomas Garlock, general manager of the Niagara Falls Bridge Commission, warned that the passport rule could cause financial problems for bridge operators, who depend on toll revenue to maintain and improve their crossings.

Garlock suggested enrolling more drivers in the NEXUS program, which allows preapproved, low-risk travelers to use dedicated lanes where they might not be regularly subjected to customs and immigration scrutiny.

The good news is that even President Bush already has requested a review of the State Department's new policy, Schumer said. And there is time to come up with an alternative.

"We have to go back to the table and figure out what is best for all of us," he said. "We all want to keep America secure. . . . At the same time, we don't want commerce to come to a standstill."

e-mail: plakamp@buffnews.com

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