The Canadian government has emphatically put its foot down against allowing U.S. Customs inspectors to carry their weapons at the proposed preinspection facility for trucks on the Canadian side of the Peace Bridge.
As a result, the Peace Bridge Authority has been forced to recast its proposed preinspection facility into a downgraded role as a preclearance facility.
The authority last year spent $17 million (Canadian) to acquire a 20-acre site in Fort Erie, Ont., near the bridge, for the facility.
As the project unfolded, it was believed that U.S. Customs inspectors would be stationed there so they could check U.S.-bound trucks for contraband before they got to the bridge.
The preinspection facility is intended to eliminate the tie-ups that often paralyze the three-lane span by clearing most trucks to cross the border before they enter the span. The traffic jams have prompted many trucking companies to reroute their cargoes through Detroit or Port Huron, Mich.
The proposal to station American inspectors at the facility in Canada is an integral part of the authority's plan to build a second bridge next to the existing span, with a modestly expanded toll plaza on the Buffalo side.
However, at a briefing at the Canadian Embassy, high government officials responded "no" on Wednesday when asked whether the government of Prime Minister Jean Chretien will ever allow American inspectors to bring their guns to work in Canada.
American officials from Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin on down have said U.S. agents will not be sent into Canadian truck inspection yards without their weapons. Treasury and Customs officials declined Thursday to comment on the news from the Canadian Embassy.
Despite the deadlock, the Peace Bridge authority two weeks ago voted to spend $10.1 million (Canadian) to build the Fort Erie facility, and the authority plans to add to the project.
At the same time, authority officials concede U.S. Customs inspections will still be done on the U.S. side, with an undetermined number of trucks crowding the off-lanes of the bridge and plaza.
In addition, the Peace Bridge Authority is now calling the facility a preclearance center.
Stephen Mayer, the authority's operation manager, said the U.S. and Canadian governments are still negotiating over the guns issue and other matters dealing with preinspection.
Even so, Mayer insisted, the authority never really counted on American inspectors being stationed in Canada as a condition for building the multimillion dollar facility near the Queen Elizabeth Way, Garrison Road and Central Avenue.
The preclearance center, he said, will enable truckers to pay tolls and get their paperwork in good order for U.S. Customs on the Buffalo side.
This will speed processing across the bridge, he said, predicting that the facility will help the authority and U.S. Customs dramatically reduce the number of trucks that are ordered into the bridge's yards for inspection.
Nonetheless, all of the authority's prior statements about the facility in Fort Erie have referred to it as a truck inspection plaza or truck inspection center.
Canadian officials noted that unarmed U.S. Customs inspectors work at Vancouver Airport in British Columbia, adding that they hope the Vancouver arrangement might become a model for American involvement at border crossing points such as Buffalo.
But they acknowledged U.S. agents feel they need to be armed because they argue working in a truck yard is far more dangerous than inspecting passengers' belongings at an airport.