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In all the hubbub over what shape the new Peace Bridge should take, the Niagara Falls Bridge Commission thinks there's an important fact being overlooked.

The Peace Bridge is only one of four bridges in the region carrying traffic between the United States and Canada, and the commission runs the other three.

The problem of how to get trucks over the river more efficiently, carrying the increasing trade between the two nations, is a regional problem, not Buffalo's alone, commission officials said.

"That means the answer needs to be regional as well," said Allen Gandell, the commission's executive director. "We think everyone needs to take a step back and realize that settling on a design for another span will only address one part of a larger problem."

It's a problem Western New York will have to face successfully if its promise as an international trade hub will be realized in decades to come, said Gandell. But instead of focusing solely on long-range solutions with regional implications -- such as lobbying Washington for more U.S. customs agents -- elected representatives are spending time and energy on an aesthetic debate.

State Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, a strong advocate of a "signature span," defended activists' fight to force the Peace Bridge Authority to consider a more dramatic bridge design as a "very healthy exercise for this community."

But Hoyt also expressed fear that in the heat of the battle, "we may be losing sight of a more important issue -- capitalizing on our opportunity to build an international trade corridor that could bring jobs and economic benefits to this region."

If the incredible energy he has seen over the signature span issue is eventually retargeted to that wider goal, Hoyt said, it could have "a huge impact on this community's future."

With State Supreme Court Justice Eugene M. Fahey overseeing lawsuits over the Peace Bridge construction pressing for progress, Hoyt said he hoped an appropriate compromise would be reached soon.

"The biggest and best signature we
could build for Western New York is a reputation as an effective, efficient place to do business," said Jim Phillips, executive director of the Canadian-American Border Trade Alliance, a binational trade group.

Right now, said Phillips, the bridge authorities, governments and transportation officials on both sides of the border are pursuing independent goals, sometimes congruent and sometimes not. "Most assuredly," he said, "a master transportation plan of sorts for the region ought to be looked at."

An important first step would be launching a comprehensive study of traffic patterns and transportation needs on both sides of the border, Gandell said. Such a study hasn't been done since free-trade barriers between the United States and Canada were dropped in the early 1990s, revolutionizing cross-border trade with America's northern neighbor.

The Lewiston-Queenston Bridge is already quietly handling overflow traffic from a congested Peace Bridge, Gandell said. Compared to last year, an average of 44 more trucks a day have crossed the bridge, many presumably diverted from the clogged Fort Erie-Buffalo crossing, said Gandell. With that sort of truck volume, the Lewiston-Queenston is the fourth-busiest truck bridge on the U.S.-Canada border, he said.

Truck drivers steering rigs toward the manufacturing plants in southern Ontario, or heading from Toronto to New York, are only looking for the shortest route, Gandell said. Not counting delays, the Lewiston-Queenston is six minutes slower for a driver on the Queen Elizabeth Way headed for Pennsylvania; it is two minutes faster for those headed east to New York and New England.

The interconnected fate of the region's border crossings make attacking its common problems all the more pressing, Gandell said. If only the extra customs officials were available on both sides of the border, the truck capacity of the four-lane Lewiston-Queenston span could be doubled within six months, he said.

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