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BRIDGES' TRAFFIC STILL DOWN DESPITE FEWER DELAYS

The long delays are over and traffic across the region's three major bridges connecting Canada and the United States has picked up, but border crossings are still down by nearly a quarter and unlikely to rebound in the near future.

Some of the drop can be attributed to reduced truck traffic, affected by the recession. But most of the decline is the result of fewer automobile trips over the Peace, Rainbow and Lewiston-Queenston bridges.

Nearly 70,000 fewer cars a week are crossing the bridges, a drop of 22 percent from a year ago. That's an improvement from the days immediately following Sept. 11 -- traffic was off by close to 50 percent in the 10 days following the attack.

Those continuing to cross the border aren't facing the lengthy delays encountered in the weeks immediately following last month's terrorist attacks. That is due to the drop in traffic and a greater number of staffed inspection booths, which largely have offset added time motorists spend responding to the closer questioning by customs and immigration officers.

"For auto trips, the delays have been minimal the past few weeks. We're back to normal," said Stephen Mayer, general manager of the Peace Bridge Authority.

Thomas Garlock, general manager of the Niagara Falls Bridge Commission, which operates the Rainbow, Whirlpool and Lewiston-Queenston bridges, reports much the same.

"The traffic has been a little more difficult to predict than in the past, but, by and large, we're not seeing any outrageous waiting times," he said.

That is not to say bridge operations are back to what was considered normal before Sept. 11.

Enforcement officials remain on the highest level of alert. Customs inspectors often, but not always, are asking drivers and passengers for identification, and U.S. officials say more motorists are being pulled over for secondary inspections.

"The number of secondary inspections is extremely high since the Sept. 11 attacks. We're searching cars and trucks continually," said Mark MacVittie, chief inspector for the Customs Service in Buffalo.

He declined to say whether the increased vigilance snared any terror suspects.

Canadian customs officials declined to say if they are pulling more motorists over for secondary inspections. But spokesperson Jean D'Amelio-Swyer said no terror suspects have been detained entering Canada at the three local bridges. The extra scrutiny did lead to a major drug bust a couple of weeks ago, however.

U.S. Customs has added another layer of inspections for cars leaving the country. "Export inspections" are being done on selected cars on the three bridges as they leave toll booths. Cars are funneled into a single lane and customs inspectors stop selected vehicles, asking for ID and taking a look inside the car.

Additional customs lanes have been opened, depending on traffic flow, to reduce traffic backups. Canadian officials have been helped by 70 additional customs officers added earlier in the year. U.S. officials are compensating by scheduling more overtime shifts and getting assistance from other law enforcement agencies.

For example, the National Guard is helping Customs officials inspect trucks. In addition, staff on both sides of the border who had been working at the Whirlpool Bridge have been reassigned to other bridges.

The Whirlpool Bridge has been closed since Sept. 11 because authorities said the staff was best deployed at more heavily used bridges. The Whirlpool Bridge carries less than one-tenth the traffic of each of the other bridges.

The Whirlpool was closed in part because Canadian Customs officials suspended its CANPASS system, which was the only option available to motorists entering Canada on the bridge. Garlock said his agency is ready to resume operations there and hopes to do so within a couple of weeks. However, MacVittie of U.S. Customs said the Whirlpool will remain closed for the time being.

"As long as we're at the highest state of alert, I think our resources are best utilized at the busiest locations," he said.

D'Amelio-Swyer, of Canada Customs, said the CANPASS program will be restored in the near future and be available to those crossing the other three bridges in the area. U.S. officials say they have no immediate plans to resume the AutoPass program at the Peace Bridge.

The programs are popular with motorists: about 11,800 AutoPasses have been issued, and an estimated 30,000 drivers in Western New York and Southern Ontario have obtained CANPASSes.

Authorities don't expect traffic to return to normal levels until at least next spring -- assuming there aren't any more serious terror attacks. That is despite a planned marketing push by tourism officials in Niagara Falls, Ont. to promote cross-border activity

The recent drop in traffic follows an increase of 3 percent in car trips across the bridges from January through Sept. 11.

"That's the biggest increase we've seen in years," said Mayer of the Peace Bridge Authority.

Truck traffic has been slumping the entire year due to the slowing economy. Truck trips across the Peace and Lewiston-Queenston bridges -- the only two local spans that handle trucks -- were down 6 percent for the year before Sept. 11 and 13 percent since.

Truckers were stuck in traffic up to 15 hours in the days following the terror attack, as inspectors carefully combed every truck crossing the border, checking engine compartments, the driver cab and cargo hold. Routine inspections are no longer that strict, but authorities say they continue to take a closer look at drivers and their cargo than they did previously.

Customs inspectors are asking for more identification from drivers and paying closer attention to cargo, said Chip Bown (CQ)of Tower Group International, which works with trucking companies to process imports and exports crossing the border.

e-mail: jheaney@buffnews.com

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