Even as Sen. Charles E. Schumer pointed over his shoulder Monday to a long line of trucks crawling across the Peace Bridge, more than 100 business, government and economic development officials were gathering in Toronto to complain about the same problem.
“One of the greatest barriers they face is just getting across the darn bridge,” said Dottie Gallagher-Cohen, president of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership and one of those organizing two days of cross-border meetings surrounding Sunday’s Buffalo Bills-Atlanta Falcons game in the Rogers Centre.
Indeed, moving freight across the international span – along with developing new binational business opportunities – dominated much of the discussion Monday as Buffalo and Toronto business and government leaders gathered in a “Cross Border Huddle” in conjunction with the Bills’s annual journey to Canada.
At the same time, Schumer stood in view of the Peace Bridge at the Fontana Boat House on the Niagara River to demand that U.S. Customs and Border Protection assign more personnel to expedite border crossings that he complained can stretch to an hour or more.
“Closed lanes while traffic is backed up is a far too frequent sight at the Peace Bridge,” he told reporters. “It is unacceptable. And I’ve come here to tell CBP … this has to end and end now.”
The main artery of commerce between New York and Ontario, he added, is now plagued by a “major case of arteriosclerosis” that is clogging cross-border business opportunities.
Gallagher-Cohen explained that the Partnership, the Bills and Rogers Communications organized the Toronto meetings that began with various officials gathering in a stadium suite during the Bills overtime loss to the Falcons on Sunday. While that event allowed networking opportunities for various Western New York and Southern Ontario interests, the real effort followed on Monday for a host of business and government officials meeting at the Real Sports Bar and Grill on York Street. That gathering was highlighted by welcoming remarks from Lt. Gov. Robert J. Duffy.
Representatives of customs brokers, freight forwarders, bankers, legal firms and the Peace Bridge Authority all gathered to talk about cross-border trade, Gallagher-Cohen said.
“When you bring Toronto into the mix, you’ve got 26 percent of the population of Canada,” she said. “It was a tremendous opportunity for us to make that work, and have it be the beginning of a binational conversation.”
Administration officials in Albany said the lieutenant governor explained several of the state’s economic development programs, how they relate to cross-border development, and that New York officials stood ready to assist in any way possible. Gallagher-Cohen said Duffy also offered to expedite any problem Canadians encounter in developing new U.S.-Canada business.
Member of Parliament Tim Hudak of the Niagara Region, leader of the Progressive-Conservative Party, also attended the meeting, Gallagher-Cohen added.
Meanwhile, Schumer emphasized that even high-level efforts like the “Cross Border Huddle” will yield few results if shippers and other businesses harbor even a perception that crossing the Peace Bridge presents a major obstacle. He quoted “reliable sources” that he would not identify but in whom he said he has confidence, saying they have indicated that more than 60 border agents have been transferred out of Buffalo in the last 18 months.
“The evidence could not be clearer; Buffalo is getting shortchanged by Customs and Border Protection,” the senator said. “Nothing, nothing, nothing is more frustrating than seeing backups on the bridge while lanes are closed.
“The solution is not complicated,” he added. “It’s not an infrastructure problem; it’s a staffing problem.”
The senator pointed to an April report of the University of Southern California’s National Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events indicating that for every additional agent at a U.S. port of entry, the local economy sees a $2 million boost and 33 new jobs – a statistic that he said CBP cites regularly. He also said the staffing increases are especially needed as the Peace Bridge Authority continues to make infrastructure improvements on both sides of the span.
Joining Schumer in seeking the staffing enhancements and offering supporting remarks were Erie County Clerk Christopher L. Jacobs and Robert D. Gioia, president of the Oishei Foundation.
U.S. Customs officials said in a statement Monday that the agency “recognizes the critical role we play in securing and supporting the local and national economies through our trade and travel facilitation mission.
The agency is continuing to “to identify new measures to improve facilities and queuing techniques,” officials said, by “automating processes, going paperless where possible, employing mobile technology and self-service kiosks, and exploring public-private partnerships.”