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RETHINKING THE BORDER

Dreams of a seamless border between Canada and the United States may have vanished in the smoke of this month's terrorist attacks on Washington and New York City. Clearly, the longest undefended border in the world is likely to remain years away from becoming the longest unguarded one.

The strict security measures imposed at Buffalo Niagara bridges in the wake of the attacks prompted not only lengthy traffic delays but the rethinking of plans for changes at the border. Efforts in recent years have focused on easing border restrictions and working toward uninterrupted traffic flow through a seamless border, but terrorism has delivered a harsh reminder that any new "gateway" bridge for Buffalo and Fort Erie probably still needs a lock on it.

This month's border delays -- measured in long minutes for passenger vehicles, and even longer hours for commercial trucking -- also offer a challenge for the federal government and Western New York's congressional delegation. It's a challenge that can and should be met immediately.

Simply put, traffic on the Peace Bridge hasn't been slowed because the bridge is stressed to capacity, a condition projected for the near future but not yet reached. Delays occur because only a handful of inspection booths are open at any given time. Federal Customs and Immigration resources were drained from this region to beef up staffing at the Mexican border, and although some additions in the past year or two have helped, the border here remains short of manpower.

The need for intensified identification checks and more frequent and thorough vehicle inspections, started after the terrorist attacks, has worsened a bad situation.

Local congressional representatives and the state's federal senators now have a chance to push for enhanced border staffing as part of the massive federal response to national security needs. The terrorist attacks now may trigger intensified border checks, along the lines of earlier congressional proposals that were sidetracked as injurious to cross-border travel and commerce. Having more customs and immigration agents available to do those checks -- a move already being championed by Rep. John J. LaFalce -- can make a dent in border inconveniences without compromising efforts to enhance border security.

The current process of designing a new Buffalo-area bridge, and a new American bridge plaza, gives planners a better chance to incorporate security improvements more smoothly into the traffic flow than the existing Peace Bridge or other border bridges could manage with add-on structures or traffic rerouting. That could become an advantage for the new bridge.

But better staffing offers an equally good chance to bolster border security, and at the same time to address an existing short-term problem that now has been exacerbated by tougher and more time-consuming border procedures.

Left unchanged, the Peace Bridge will remain at best an inconvenient bottleneck and at worst a nightmare of delay. Incorporated into America's border safety plans with a share of the federal resources already targeted for better national security, all of the region's bridges can become both safer and more manageable crossings.

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