Canada today announced a 90-day trial run for a border crossing system that will let Buffalo-area motorists zip across the Peace Bridge or two Niagara Falls-area bridges in express lanes.
Dashboard ID cards will alert customs inspectors that the travelers are local residents with nothing to declare. The system is designed for short trips across the border, and Canadian officials warned that penalties for abuses "will be heavy."
To use the ID cards, travelers must live within 20 miles of Fort Erie or Niagara Falls, Ont., and must be headed for a Canadian stay less than 24 hours long.
"As of Aug. 1 of this year, we are putting into place right here at the Peace Bridge a dedicated, or express, lane for frequent travelers, for local residents with nothing to declare," Canadian Minister of National Revenue Otto Jelinek said at a Peace Bridge ceremony today.
"The dedicated lane will allow travelers to clear customs without having to go through the formality of having to declare whether or not they have anything to declare," he said. "This, of course, will relieve the traffic flow in the other lanes as well."
Similar lanes will be set up at the Queenston-Lewiston Bridge and the Rainbow Bridge, he added.
The express lane project, part of Jelinek's "Customs 2000" master planning effort, is similar to the auto commuter lanes on the American side of the border. That system uses a mirror sticker and a card to be shown to U.S. customs inspectors in a special lane at the border checkpoint.
A Canadian customs spokesman said the Canadian cards are not yet available, and a distribution system will be announced in the future.
Cards will most likely be available at various pickup points, including the customs offices, and probably at the Canadian bridge toll-collection stations.
The program will use a pamphlet detailing customs regulations and including a specially designed symbol for placement in the lower left corner of a vehicle's windshield. The symbol will be on a card that applicants will detach from the pamphlet and fill out with their names, addresses and signatures.
Canadian customs officers will conduct periodic checks of cars in the express lanes and will collect the cards during those checks.
"This is not going to be an open border, altogether," Jelinek said.
"We're going to be toughening the penalties for people who will be caught smuggling goods into Canada, whether it be in the express lane or the other lanes," he added while announcing the program during ceremonies dedicating the new $4 million Canadian customs center at the Peace Bridge.
Seizures of cars and goods will be made, and new and stricter penalties are being drawn up, he added. Illegal importation could cost someone bringing an undeclared bottle of liquor into Canada as much as $120, he said.
To qualify for and use the new express lane cards, applicants must:
Be Canadian or U.S. residents who live with 30 kilometers, or 20 miles, of Fort Erie or Niagara Falls.
Be absent from Canada or visiting Canada for less than 24 hours.
Have not purchased, been given or acquired goods in any manner.
Have no business material, professional or commercial goods, goods for resale, samples, tools or equipment in their possession.
Have no weapons, firearms or other contraband.
Have no endangered species in their possession.
Jelinek called the effort to speed traffic but keep a close check on smuggling a difficult one.
The improvements, which will include the new customs center to speed commercial processing and secondary customs checks, are part of Canada's effort "to improve traffic flow both to and from Canada at our border crossings," Jelinek said.
Some 2.7 million persons crossed the border at the Peace Bridge in the first five months of this year, about a 10 percent increase over last year's rates.