Long lines at the bridges into Canada have been getting even longer this summer – and there’s no sign they will shorten any time soon.
The problem rests with too few open inspection booths, bridge officials on both sides of the U.S-Canadian border say, leading to long delays – sometimes more than an hour – at the Peace, Rainbow and Lewiston-Queenston bridges.
“We’ve seen a dramatic increase in wait times and in long backups crossing into Canada,” said Sam Hoyt, who chairs the binational Peace Bridge Authority.
The same situation is true at the Rainbow and Lewiston briges in Niagara County.
“If you’re an American traveling and coming into Canada, and you have to wait an hour at the bridge, what does that do to your experience?” said Lou Holloway, general manager of the Niagara Falls Bridge Commission. “Especially when you see half of the booths aren’t open.”
All the booths are not open because of staffing, and the Peace Bridge Authority has no control over staffing on the Canadian side. That rests with the Canada Border Services Agency. The union contract, which expired in June 2014 but remains in effect, allows employees two weeks off in the summer as well as unpaid family leave, and Peace Bridge officials say not been enough staff is available to fill in for those taking off.
“This year has been significantly worse than last year,” said Ron Rienas, a Canadian and the Peace Bridge’s president and general manager.
Rienas said he was not aware of all 15 lanes being open into Canada at the Peace Bridge at any point this summer.
“Any time we ask for more booths, it’s been an issue,” he said.
The Canada Border Services Agency did not respond to a request to speak to The Buffalo News.
“A lot of people have said we need a new bridge,” Hoyt said. “No, we need to fully staff the booths so the traffic moves quickly.”
“I’m sure Canadian officials would say they’re frustrated as well,” Hoyt said. “If U.S. residents feel like it is too much of a hassle to cross the border, they’re not going to go. That means they’re not going to Niagara-on-the-Lake, the Shaw Festival, or spending money at restaurants and stores.”
The Peace Bridge isn’t the only one experiencing long delays. So are the Rainbow Bridge and the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge, said Holloway, general manager of the Niagara Falls Bridge Commission.
The delays at those two bridges – the Whirlpool Bridge is a Nexus-only crossing – are getting worse, he said.
“The Canada Border Services Agency is understaffed as far as having officers available for primary inspection lanes at both peak and off-peak times,” Holloway said.
“For example, at the Rainbow Bridge we will see traffic backed up across the bridge, and there may be only six or seven of the 13 booths open. In some circumstances, they’re even closing lanes while the traffic is backed up that far.”
Travelers frustration has translated into less traffic the past two years, Holloway said.
Citing recent examples of delays, the Peace Bridge Authority claimed only six of 15 Peace Bridge lanes going into Canada were open at 11:30 a.m. on Sunday, June 26, resulting in a 68-minute delay. Just one lane, plus one Nexus lane, was open on Tuesday, June 28 at 8:50 a.m., causing a 30-minute delay. That same day, at 11:50 a.m., only three of 14 lanes were open on the Rainbow Bridge, causing traffic to back up across the bridge.
Both Hoyt and Holloway say they don’t blame the union for negotiating a lucrative contract, but there needs to be commensurate staffing so travelers don’t suffer.
Rienas said the lack of predictability for the booth closings is particularly frustrating.
“You would think crossing the bridge at 10 in the morning on a weekday wouldn’t have any delays,” Reinas said. “But this summer we have been experiencing that because there are only a couple of lanes open. People don’t expect that. They expect congestion on a weekend, but not in the middle of the day, and it’s this lack of predictability that ultimately leads to border avoidance.”
Hoyt said the bridge delays is at odds with the importance of cross-border trade that President Obama and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau touted earlier this year.
“It makes me very angry,” Hoyt said. “The Peace Bridge Authority will do everything it possibly can to expedite the flow of traffic. That includes increasing the use of NEXUS users, which we have dramatically increased marketing for. But if you don’t have the staff to fill the booths, then nothing is going to make a difference.
Rienas, who urges people to sign up for Nexus as a way to make boarder crossing more efficient, said it’s not because bridge officials aren’t trying that the unmanned booth problem persists.
“We call CBSA all the time and say, ‘Can you get another booth open,’ and they invariably say, ‘No, we don’t have the staff available to do that,’” Rienas said.
The Peace Bridge Authority’s hands, he said, are tied.
“We’re the landlord for customs, we’re not customs. We do not determine how many customs booths are open in either direction.”