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On July 5, travelers encountered massive delays as they attempted to return to the United States via area international bridges at the end of the Fourth of July weekend. When I asked border officials what the problem was, here's what I was told:

"Traffic delays were, on average, from 35 minutes to under an hour," said Janet Rapaport, Public Affairs Officer, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, New York Region. That was the official response after repeated telephone calls and e-mails requesting an explanation for the tie-ups. Rapaport insisted that waits to cross the bridges were under an hour, when in fact they were three, four, five and even six hours.

The problem of bridge delays of several hours or more is increasing this summer, and the delays have profound economic consequences for the entire region. Bridge tie-ups have the potential for devastating the tourism industry and greatly impacting the quality of life for residents who have long considered the ease of travel between New York and Ontario as one of the area's major assets.

Bridge officials, motel operators in Fort Erie, Ont., and Niagara Falls, Ont., trucking firms and travelers were incredulous when informed of the official delay time of 35 minutes to under an hour.

"I got married that weekend on July 3, and my mother, who was visiting from Florida, was staying in Fort Erie," recalled Denise Cannon, travel manager of Power Travel in Orchard Park. "On Sunday, July 4, she tried to come over the Peace Bridge to the United States, and the delays were several hours. She gave up and tried again the next day on July 5. We were having a family party and were expecting her to come.

"She attempted a crossing in the morning, and it was bad, and she gave up after a couple hours," Cannon said. "Then she tried again later in the afternoon, and all the traffic was being routed onto the QEW (Queen Elizabeth Way), and she had to go all the way to the Niagara Falls entrance to get on the highway and ended up waiting in line for six hours.

"People were running out of gas and abandoning their cars. It was just awful. They could not take it any more and ended up going back to their motel and getting up at 4:30 the next morning and finally getting to my house in West Seneca around 6:30 on Tuesday."

Motel operators in Fort Erie were deluged with refugees from the bridge lines on July 5. Several hundred people were forced to give up on crossing the Niagara River after their endurance was tested to the maximum.

Buffalo and the Peace Bridge are within sight of the Howard Johnson Inn, 139 Garrison Road. The motel was sold out on the night of July 5, and 20 of the 34 rooms were filled with people who had been trying to cross the border.

"It was good for us that we filled our rooms that night, and I had to turn people away," explained Gaurav Sethi, manager of the motel. "But this situation is bad for both sides of the border. People came in with their kids and were at the end of their ropes. They wanted to be home. One woman was in a wheelchair and had to take a break from sitting in the car. These backups turn our town into an absolute mess, and we can't even drive around."

Down Garrison Road at the Holiday Inn, three miles from the Peace Bridge, Donna Mancuso, guest services manager, was expecting a quiet day until people started staggering into the lobby.

"People were really upset, and they needed a break," Mancuso said. "I ended up selling 55 of my 107 rooms to people who were trying to cross the bridge and couldn't take the situation any more. It was the worst I have ever seen it, and it is certainly not good for tourism to our area. Americans are not going to come over here and face these conditions.

"We had 10 truck rigs parked in our lot, and some people parked their cars in our lot and walked from here to the Peace Bridge and across the bridge," she added. "They had to get home, and it was a totally crazy situation."

The restaurant at the hotel usually closes at 10 p.m., but Mancuso kept it open until 1 a.m. to take care of her beleaguered guests.

A TV reporter's story

Stefan Mychajliw, Channel 2 reporter, understands first-hand the subject of his July 5 news story -- bridge backups.

"At our 3 p.m. editorial meeting, we talked about reports of bridge tie-ups, so Scott May, my photographer, and I headed over the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge to Canada," he recalled. "I could not believe the situation with all the people trying to get to the U.S. It was total gridlock. People were abandoning their cars and walking. I felt so badly for tourists visiting the area, the elderly and families with children."

When it became obvious that he was not going to make it back across the bridge for the newscast, the team decided to head for the Rainbow Bridge in Niagara Falls. Again, they were greeted with enormous backups.

"So we drove by the back roads to Fort Erie and ended up on Garrison Road and thought we were so smart to have avoided a lot of traffic," Mychajliw explained. "But at this point (about 6 p.m.) the police were directing everyone to the QEW. That's when I knew I would not be making the 11 p.m. broadcast unless I walked.

"I left the car and Scott and walked across the bridge with my tapes for my news report," he said. "It was an unreal experience and took me an hour and 15 minutes to get to Niagara and Porter, where I was picked up. I'm 30 years old and grew up in Buffalo, traveling across the bridge frequently. It was my first time walking. Scott drove into the Channel 2 parking lot (five minutes from the Peace Bridge) four hours later."

The obvious question here is whether traffic returning to the U.S. this year was up over the end of the Fourth of July weekend last year, when bridge delays were not nearly as bad.

Not only were numbers of cars crossing the Peace Bridge down this year, but they were down by a sizable number in spite of the fact that last year border crossings were negatively affected by the outbreak of SARS in Toronto.

"Last year on Sunday, July 6, the end of the Fourth of July weekend, we had 13,617 cars crossing into the U.S. on the Peace Bridge," Ron Rienas, general manager of the Peace Bridge, said.

"This year there were 9,415 cars crossing into the U.S. on July 5, the end of the holiday weekend. So obviously volume is not an explanation for the huge problems we had."

Peace Bridge passenger car traffic was down 5 percent in June this year over last year and so far this July traffic is down 7 percent over 2003.

Rapaport, the public affairs officer for U.S. Customs and Border Protection in New York, when pressed for an explanation for delays, said a possible explanation was due to the heavy volume over the holiday weekend.

A frustrating situation

Rienas said he feels a sense of frustration over recent delays that are beyond his control and in the hands of the management of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. He said the Peace Bridge Authority is going ahead with its plans to move the toll booths to the Canadian side and to move the Duty Free Store to a wider area of the plaza near Vermont and Busti in an effort to do what it can to smooth the flow of bridge traffic.

At midnight on July 5 there was a shift change, and all inspection stations were closed except two (out of a possible 12 lanes for passenger cars) despite long lines still waiting to cross into the U.S.

"There is no doubt there are serious economic consequences to this situation," Rienas said. "The Buffalo Bills, the Sabres, our theaters all need Canadians. Toronto, the Shaw Festival, Fort Erie and Niagara Falls all need Americans to come over.

"A woman called me who was caught up in the delays, and she said she had spent $130 for tickets to Shea's and never got to the theater. She said why should she ever buy tickets again if she runs the risk of losing the money. People have missed flights out of the Buffalo airport because of this state of affairs."

Passengers miss flights

C. Douglas Hartmayer, director of public affairs for the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, which operates the Buffalo Niagara Airport, said as many as 20 percent of the passengers using the airport are Canadians.

"We advertise in Canada, and if people become frustrated and miss flights or are caught up in bridge tie-ups, we would lose economically," he said.

There also are life and death consequences to bridge backups. There have been four fatalities on the QEW because of cars rear-ending tractor-trailers stopped on the highway. Fortunately, there haven't been any known medical emergencies on the bridge during the backups. Rienas admitted that there would definitely be delays in getting assistance to someone sitting on the bridge and suffering an emergency such as a heart attack.

Luke Rich, a consultant to the Buffalo Niagara Partnership on bridge issues, admitted that the bridge delay issue is a complex one with wide-ranging consequences that affect the economy and tourism on both sides of the border.

"U.S. Customs has to find a way to separate the high risk traveler from the low risk ones," he said. "We desperately need the economic benefits of free flowing border crossings."

Richard Geiger, president and CEO of the Buffalo Niagara Convention and Visitors Bureau, said his organization has always marketed the bi-national attractions of the area.

"In one short trip visitors can visit two countries," he said. "Obviously we can't use this marketing approach if these massive backups continue. It is supposed to be the friendliest border in the world, and we certainly want to aggressively market it that way."

A financial nightmare

In Niagara Falls, N.Y., David Rosenwasser, president of the Niagara Tourism & Convention Corp., said the bridge backups into the U.S. have been a financial nightmare for the city and Niagara County.

"It's been very injurious to us as a destination," he said, recalling a call from a tourist in the area. "The man was visiting from Connecticut for a family reunion and got caught up in a major bridge delay on the way home from Niagara-on-the-Lake. He told me he was 70 and had a 70-year-old bladder that could not take such waits. He then said that delays do not encourage visitors to stay on the U.S. side and instead mean that they just won't come back to the whole area.

"Certainly, security is a very important issue, but every car should not be treated in the same way, and there has to be a way to keep the traffic moving," Rosenwasser added. "It has been the ultimate slap in the face to this area to allow these delays to continue."

Rosenwasser said he would like to market the attractions of Niagara County, such as Artpark, to residents of Hamilton and southern Ontario but has held off because of the bridge problems.

"Why would they want to buy tickets if they run the risk of never getting to their destination in time?" he asked.

Tom Garlock, general manager of the Niagara Falls Bridge Commission, which operates the three Niagara Falls bridges, said delays entering the United States over the Fourth of July weekend stretched to more than four hours.

"The cities on the Canadian side were a mess, with nothing moving. We had expected a robust weekend especially after all the problems last year, but our overall traffic was down about 1,000 cars and yet we still had these horrible backups," Garlock said. "Everyone understands security, but the situation is still baffling."

Prescreening isn't helping

It would seem that the NEXUS program for regular commuters is of little help in speeding traffic, especially for those stuck in lines on the QEW or Route 405 in Queenston. Bridge officials pointed out that if more regular commuters underwent the additional screening necessary for the program, it would help everyone. NEXUS allows prescreened, low risk travelers to be processed with little or no delay on either side of the border.

Applications are available at all bridges and on-line. The program costs $50 per person for five years, and everyone in the car must have a NEXUS card to use the special lanes. The Whirlpool Bridge in Niagara Falls is open only to NEXUS cardholders, so delays there are rare.

Peter Cook, a retired Buffalo attorney with homes in Bay Beach, Ont., and Florida, is a NEXUS card holder but is still fed up with the delays. He said he has been crossing the border for 65 years, and the current situation is the worst he has seen.

"I have the luxury of not needing to commute back and forth, but many of my neighbors here at the beach and fellow members of the Buffalo Canoe Club (on Bay Beach) must commute daily," he said. "It has been a real nightmare for them. It also affects my entire life. Family and friends are reluctant to come over to see us because they do not want to subject themselves to the uncertain nature of the bridge.

"Whenever I have to go across the border, I consult several Web sites to check the bridge delay situation. I have changed my plans when conditions looked bad, but not everyone can do that, and I know of people who have missed flights."

Of course, there is not much point in checking Web sites if the information is not reliable. On July 5 when delays on the Peace Bridge were lasting hours, the Web site for U.S. Customs & Border Protection reportedly indicated that delays were no more than 55 minutes.

If there is no acknowledgment of a problem, how can it be corrected?

Deborah Williams is a freelance writer who specializes in travel issues.