The biometric scans of eyes or fingerprints that President Trump wants at border crossings could toss years of infrastructure planning on the scrap heap, warn officials running the area’s four international bridges.
Trump's executive order would necessitate major new facilities costing millions of dollars to implement the requirements.
At the Peace Bridge, it might mean a toll hike, officials said.
“Adding exit booths to biometrically track everyone leaving the U.S. would create a logistical nightmare as it would require the construction of some form of exit plaza and a significant staffing commitment,” said Peace Bridge Authority General Manager Ron Rienas.
And what about plans for the Peace Bridge Buffalo plaza that rank as top priorities for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo?
“We would anticipate that implementing such a system would require enormous costs and structural changes to our current operations,” authority Chairman Sam Hoyt said. “We’re taking a wait and see approach, but obviously there are real concerns.”
Hoyt said new requirements would affect passenger cars, truckers and tourism with a “devastating” effect on the economies of both sides of a border dependent on relatively uncomplicated crossings.
And for the authority, new booths to allow inspection of traffic leaving the United States wold mean more impediments just as a $100 million redecking project reduces traffic from three lanes to two for half the year.
A Peace Bridge master plan that has been on the books for years also faces the possibility of major revisions.
“Obviously, we budget for the future based on what we know, not what we don’t know,” Hoyt said. “This could blow up our current budget strategy. And who knows? It may require a toll increase to pay for it.”
A similar situation faces the three spans run by the Niagara Falls Bridge Commission. General Manager Lew Holloway also envisions the need for major new facilities on the U.S. plazas to handle biometric inspections for Canada-bound traffic, as well as significant expenses and long delays.
“It’s very concerning,” he said.
Holloway noted the 9/11 Commission recommended similar measures following the terrorist attacks of 2001, but they were never implemented because of costs and major effects on traffic.
“We’re optimistic they will recognize that this is an impractical thing to do,” he said. “However, this is the new normal.”
Nobody running any of the four bridges crossing the Niagara River opposes the concept of biometric checks, in which border agents scan the eye’s iris and fingerprints to root out those not cleared for border passage. As part of his registration in the NEXUS border system, Rienas noted his own expedited clearance provided by biometric scanning while traveling internationally from Pearson International Airport in Toronto.
In airport scanning, Rienas said, pedestrians easily pass through scanners without causing major backups. Land travel also has proven safer than ever, he believes, because passports and enhanced drivers licenses are already biometrically scanned. The method works, he said.
But another layer of inspection is anticipated if Trump's order takes effect, he said.
“How do you collect biometric information for people in a car?” he asked. “Get out and stand by a kiosk?
“The problem is no one has been able to tell us how this would work at a land border where people are in cars and trucks,” he added. “That is why in the NEXUS lane at a land border there are no fingerprints or iris scans taken. There are fingerprints taken for some secondary inspections, but to require that for everyone entering the U.S. at the primary inspection booth would create obvious problems.”
One such problem, Rienas said, is the lack of room on the Buffalo plaza for new inspection facilities. The idea of moving toll collection to the Ontario side in 2005 was to free space for other functions, he noted.
The Cuomo administration is eyeing the Buffalo plaza for an eventual visitors center and other amenities enhancing the U.S. gateway.
Cuomo’s office did not respond to requests for comment on the Trump plan.
Rienas added that the Public Border Operators Association, an organization representing those administering crossings across the northern border, lobbied against the idea as far back as 2015. Back then, the Niagara Falls Bridge Commission’s Holloway was president and expressed to Congress fears of significant costs and delays that would prove “devastating” to local economies on both sides of the border.
Reinas said the authority appreciates the opposition voiced by Reps. Chris Collins and Brian Higgins after Trump issued the order. And he noted the expensive infrastructure needed for the system could be avoided if the United States and Canada can find a way to share information and avoid new construction. But that would require an international agreement that he said is a long way off.
“The key is if the technology advances to the point where it can be done through an agreement with Canada,” he said, “where Canadian entry becomes the U.S. exit and they share that information. The problem is that nobody has been able to demonstrate how it would actually work.”
He also noted that the U.S. and Canada already share biographical information gleaned from passport scans.
Rienas reiterated that costs and logistical concerns doomed the original biometrics proposal following the 2001 terrorist attacks. And Higgins pronounced his skepticism a few days ago, noting that estimates at the time of the report pegged nationwide costs at $6.5 billion – 22 percent of the Department of Homeland Security’s budget.
Collins, meanwhile, played a key role in killing a similar proposal that surfaced in 2015.
The Toronto Globe and Mail also reported earlier this month that Canada has launched a behind-the-scenes lobbying campaign against the proposal, noting that Canadian Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale has even discussed his concerns with Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly. The lobbying effort is also expected to include members of Congress.
Still, worries are mounting inside the offices of the Peace Bridge Authority and the Niagara Falls Bridge Commission. Holloway, of the Niagara Falls crossings, said serious economic effects also await truckers, malls, hotels and professional sports teams.
“This is not something to be taken lightly,” he said.