WASHINGTON – Some U.S.-bound cargo will be inspected on the Canadian side of the Peace Bridge for the first time in history Feb. 24 as the two nations begin a six-month pilot project that could culminate in the eventual move of all initial truck inspections to Fort Erie, Ont.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., announced the move Thursday, saying the pilot project could herald a new era at the Peace Bridge that would dramatically reduce the amount of time that trucks spend idling on the bridge or in Buffalo.
If the pilot project is successful and all U.S.-bound trucks are eventually preinspected on the Canadian side, “it should do a world of good in alleviating congestion on the bridge,” said Schumer, who also has won a commitment to increase the number of customs agents at the bridge.
Schumer has been pushing for preinspection for years, saying it could smooth the flow of traffic by putting the time-consuming task of truck inspection on the much larger and less-congested plaza on the Canadian side of the Peace Bridge.
But making it all work required international diplomacy, as the Canadian government had to agree to allow gun-toting U.S. customs agents on its soil to do inspections.
“This is pretty historic,” said Ron Rienas, general manager of the Peace Bridge Authority and a Canadian. “This is the first time the Canadian government has allowed U.S. agents to carry guns and do all the normal procedures of inspection on the Canadian side of the river.”
At the same time, though, Rienas said the initial pilot project won’t be big enough to substantially reduce truck congestion on the bridge, where trucks often back up as they wait to approach the seven customs inspection booths in Buffalo.
Under the pilot project, two inspection booths on the Canadian side will be dedicated to inspecting U.S.-bound traffic, Rienas said. Peace Bridge Authority staff will direct trucks to those two lanes depending on the traffic flow
Those two lanes will feature radiation detection equipment and all the other features of the truck inspection lanes on the American side. Trucks that are inspected in those lanes will either be cleared through a dedicated lane on the American side with a green light or stopped for a secondary inspection in Buffalo.
The preinspection pilot project will cost just under $1 million, in contrast to the $35 million or so it would cost to build upwards of a dozen inspection lanes to accommodate all U.S.-bound cargo on the Canadian side.
“No one is going to spend $35 million on something that may never happen,” said Rienas, who noted that the Peace Bridge Authority has financing available for the project.
Schumer and other advocates of preinspection – including Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo – hope the pilot project works. They think the eventual move of all preliminary truck inspection to the Canadian side would be good for several reasons. In addition to making traffic flow more smoothly, they argue that Canadian-based inspections would reduce the diesel fumes that have led to abnormally high asthma rates in the Buffalo neighborhoods near the Peace Bridge.
In 2012, those high asthma rates prompted several federal agencies to briefly consider moving all the truck traffic off the Peace Bridge and to Lewiston-Queenston Bridge. But the U.S. General Services Administration, which spearheaded that effort, quickly abandoned it after an agency official from New York objected.
While neighborhood activists would like to see that plan revived, Schumer and Higgins instead are focusing on the preinspection plan.
The preinspection pilot project is set to last six months, but Schumer’s office said it could be extended to up to a year.
A ceremony will mark the beginning of the preinspection project Feb. 24, Schumer said. Either Jeh Johnson, the U.S. secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, or Alan Bersin, assistant secretary of the department for international affairs, is expected to attend.