A plan to move Peace Bridge tollbooths from the Buffalo side of the crossing to Fort Erie, Ont., appears to be gaining momentum.
The switch would mean less congestion for motorists at the cramped U.S. plaza, and residents near the plaza on Buffalo's West Side would breathe cleaner air, say those who support the change.
The idea has been studied and talked about for years, but now the Canadian federal government plans to provide money to help pay for the switch, sources said Monday. The formal announcement could come this week.
"I can't say anything until I know we have the money in hand," said Paul J. Koessler, vice chairman of the Peace Bridge Authority. "Some of the things are still up in the air."
Koessler predicted "some very good things for people crossing the bridge" if the aid comes through.
John A. Lopinski of Port Colborne, Ont., the authority's chairman, could not be reached to comment. "If they're able to implement it, it certainly is great news and a very positive step towards the most important goal: a greater flow of commerce at this international border crossing," said Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, D-Buffalo.
Peace Bridge officials aren't saying how much money and how much time it would take to move the tollbooths from Buffalo to Fort Erie.
The Peace Bridge Authority owns 58 acres in Fort Erie in a light-density urban area buffered by mostly commercial properties. The U.S. plaza is on about 17 acres in a densely populated urban area.
The authority reported 6.67 million passenger car crossings at the Peace Bridge in 2002, while the number of truck crossings topped 1.34 million. Motorists pay a toll at the U.S. plaza before driving into Canada but pay no toll as they drive across the bridge from Canada into the United States.
In December, a daily average of 7,155 motorists paid a toll at the U.S. plaza, and about 1,500 truck drivers paid a commercial toll.
Switching tollbooth locations "will dramatically speed up the flow of traffic across the bridge, which, in turn, should result in fewer trucks idling and lessen the environmental impact on the neighborhood," Hoyt said.
Asthma rates on the West Side are high, according to Dr. Jamson S. Lwebuga-Mukasa, director of Buffalo General Hospital's Center for Asthma and Environmental Exposure. He has conducted research that he says shows a correlation between Peace Bridge traffic and the high rates.
However, the Peace Bridge Authority's air-quality sampling near the bridge indicates that the fumes from cars and trucks crossing the bridge are not the main source of pollution affecting West Side residents.
Regardless of who's right, "It's environmentally sound to keep traffic moving," said Niagara Council Member Dominic J. Bonifacio, whose district includes the Peace Bridge neighborhood.
"We're told when cars stop and idle, more pollutants go into the air," he said. "So anytime we can keep traffic from stopping on the American side, it makes it more environmentally friendly for the neighborhood."
Moving toll collection to Fort Erie also would be a first step toward shared border management, Hoyt said. Creating joint U.S.-Canadian border inspection facilities on the Canadian side of the border means a smaller plaza could be built in Buffalo as part of any Peace Bridge expansion.
"I have long supported repositioning all of, or as much as possible, the processing and customs and immigration work from the American side to the Canadian side," Hoyt said.
If the authority eliminates the tollbooths on the U.S. plaza, it also should remove the duty-free store from the center of the plaza, Hoyt said. "That's a mistake that never should have been made in the first place."
Fort Erie Mayor Wayne H. Redekop said he would support moving the tollbooths to Fort Erie.
Redekop said he hasn't been told how the authority would position the tollbooths.
"If they move the toll collection into Fort Erie, I think it would make more sense (making motorists pay the toll) as they leave Canada," he said.
That would allow the authority to use more of its land on the Canadian plaza, he said.
The labor issues regarding American employees who now collect the tolls could be "a bit of predicament," Redekop said.
Hoyt said he wants existing American toll collectors taken care of.
"If the toll takers are not American in the future, then those Americans better receive similar jobs with similar pay," he said.
Luiz F. Kahl, who recently stepped down as the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority's representative on the Peace Bridge board, said a switch makes sense.
"This is something we've been trying to get accomplished," Kahl said. "I think it's a great idea. It would help traffic substantially. The Canadian plaza has the area for it, can accommodate it, and it will mitigate the traffic on the American side."