Over the Independence Day weekend, some Peace Bridge motorists waited more than five hours to cross the Niagara River.
And as recently as Sunday evening, others complained of waiting another two hours, only to find several unstaffed inspection booths on the New York side of the international border.
Now Sen. Charles E. Schumer is calling the delays unacceptable. The New York Democrat appeared at the bridge Monday with business leaders and Peace Bridge Authority officials to detail new pressure on Customs officials to assign more inspectors to the bridge.
"It's a matter of understaffing and poor planning by Customs," Schumer said. "Customs should be more strategic in their planning."
The senator said he is stepping up efforts to enhance inspection staffing at the bridge because the problem is getting worse. Though traffic this June was 5 percent less than June of 2003, traffic lines have grown to "outrageous proportions," especially during rush hour, he said.
Schumer said research conducted by his staff on July 1 showed only two out of 12 primary inspection booths were open at 6:30 a.m., resulting in severe backups past noon. He said more backups developed over the July 4 weekend because full staffing was not in place until 8:30 a.m., long after delays began.
He also said Peace Bridge Authority records show the average processing time increased from 38 seconds to 76 seconds during the period between July 1 and 6.
"The bottom line is we need more staff and we need to use the staff we have at the right times and places," he said.
Janet Rappaport, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection, said the agency is aware of Schumer's efforts and will eventually address them. Schumer said he met with Customs officials in Washington last week to discuss the problem and has sent a letter to Customs Commissioner Raymond Bonner, outlining specific complaints.
Schumer also said the delays result more from inefficient staffing than enhanced security.
"The delays, backups and waiting times have become more than just an inconvenience," Schumer said. "It is now interfering with local commerce and safety. I urge Customs to increase staffing during peak commuter traffic hours as soon as possible."
He was not alone in his concern. Mary S. Martino, who represents the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority on the Peace Bridge Authority, appeared with Schumer, as did Buffalo Niagara Partnership President Andrew J. Rudnick. In addition, two Peace Bridge commuters -- Albert Huntz of the Town of Tonawanda and Warren Gelman of Buffalo, both related accounts of getting caught in Peace Bridge traffic for up to six hours in recent weeks.
"This year, the trip back over the bridge has been much more difficult than it ever has been in the past," said Gelman, a frequent bridge user.
All of this played well for a senator seeking re-election this year. Immediately after the morning news conference, Schumer traveled across town to Partnership headquarters, where Rudnick and Chairwoman Marsha S. Henderson endorsed him -- mainly on the strength of his Peace Bridge efforts.
"Chuck Schumer has responded," Rudnick said. "The endorsement we announce today is in direct response to his responsiveness."
The endorsement is significant for a Democratic senator who has not always enjoyed cozy relations with the Partnership. In 1999, Rudnick labeled Schumer "the ubiquitous one" who may have promised too much to too many people. As recently as January, Rudnick was raising the same questions.
"You have to give him an 'A' for effort, but an 'incomplete' for results," he said then. "Maybe that's inevitable in Congress."