Some 6.5 million passenger cars crossed the Peace Bridge in 1999, ending a three-year decline in car traffic at the Niagara River crossing, according to new figures released Friday.
About 215,000 more cars crossed than the year before, for a 3.4 percent increase, according to the U.S.-Canada Bridge and Tunnel Operators Association.
That put last year's count at about the same level as 1995.
Peace Bridge officials attribute much of the increase to travelers heading to the new slot machines at Fort Erie Race Track. The 1,200-machine slot parlor opened in September.
Meanwhile, commercial truck traffic continued to grow.
Nearly 1.5 million trucks crossed the bridge last year, a 7 percent increase from the year before, according to the association.
"It's business as usual," said Earl Rowe, the Peace Bridge Authority's general manager of corporate services. "One thing I can say is the commercial traffic increases are not going away."
Authority officials point to the increasing traffic as a reason to build a companion three-lane bridge next to the existing three-lane Peace Bridge. The number of trucks crossing the bridge has increased 30 percent since 1995.
But the authority's favored twin-span plan prompted lawsuits and political opposition in Buffalo, leading to the creation of an independent panel to consider alternative designs and locations for a new U.S. plaza and bridge. The panel is expected to make a recommendation to the authority by March 15.
The authority is pushing for bridge construction to begin by this summer so that it can open by 2003.
The year-end increase of commercial traffic at the Peace Bridge topped last year's 5 percent gain.
But the Peace Bridge's truck count trailed the gains posted at other border crossings.
The Ambassador Bridge, a 75-year-old span between Detroit and Windsor, Ont., reported a 15 percent increase in truck traffic in 1999. More than 3.4 million trucks crossed the Ambassador Bridge, the nation's busiest border crossing.
The Blue Water Bridge connecting Port Huron, Mich., and Sarnia, Ont., reported an 11 percent increase in truck traffic, from 1.3 million trucks to nearly 1.5 million trucks.
The Lewiston-Queenston Bridge reported an 8 percent truck traffic gain, with almost 1 million trucks crossing last year.
A new truck-processing center that opened in November at the Peace Bridge's Canadian plaza has eased congestion at the border crossing's U.S. plaza, said Anthony D. Braunscheidel, manager for information technology at the Peace Bridge.
The authority built the Commercial Vehicle Processing Centre to reduce traffic delays caused by truckers who want to enter the United States but show up at the Peace Bridge with incomplete paperwork.
The idea is to keep the unprepared trucks off the bridge and the U.S. plaza until their paperwork can be put in order at the processing center in Fort Erie.
The center processed 313 trucks on Jan. 24, the highest mark to date, Braunscheidel said.
Roughly 28 percent of the trucks entering the United States typically showed up with incomplete paperwork before the opening of the processing center, according to Peace Bridge Authority figures. That led to delays on the U.S. plaza.
On Nov. 30, after 244 trucks were routed through the processing center, about 19 percent of the trucks were delayed on the U.S. plaza for inspections or paperwork problems.
Eventually, the goal is to reduce the number of trucks delayed on the plaza to about 8 percent.
"It is working" Braunscheidel said.