Bagpipes and an honor guard welcomed more than 150 guests to what was called a "significant milestone" Thursday, as the ribbon was cut on a new $62 million plaza on the Canadian side of the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge.
The plaza -- crafted in glass and metal in a modernistic style -- was part of a second phase of improvements to the bridge, one of four international crossings in the Buffalo Niagara region, and the span that has become known in recent years for its long wait times on busy travel weekends.
The upgrades will help ease the traffic crunch. They include new inspection booths for trucks and passenger vehicles, and a separate bus lane that can process several buses simultaneously.
Lew Holloway, general manager of the Niagara Falls Bridge Commission, said the first plaza opened in Queenston in 1962. The commission "put a lot of extra effort" into the latest incarnation to make it last another 50 years, he said.
Rob Nicholson, a member of Parliament who represents Niagara Falls, called the opening a great moment in the continuing work to upgrade the international crossing. "This is one of the busiest border crossings in the country. The Queenston-Lewiston Bridge is vital to our trade with the United States," Nicholson said. "Last year, roughly 675,000 commercial trucks and over 2.5 million cars used this bridge."
He predicted those numbers will increase and said it was essential to move traffic efficiently across the bridge to prevent costly delays.
The Canadian plaza was called a "modern welcoming gateway" by Tony Geoghegan, Canada Border Services' acting regional director for Niagara-Fort Erie.
Traffic inspection lanes have increased from six to 10, he said, and commercial inspection lanes have increased from three to five and will include new Nexus lanes and a bus clearance facility that will allow border agents to inspect several buses at once.
"This will become our central bus clearance facility for the Niagara-Fort Erie Region," he said. "The flow of traveler trade is key to Canada's prosperity."
Incoming Bridge Commission Chairman Patrick D. Brown, of Lewiston, N.Y., said the refurbished plaza will process traffic into Canada more quickly, but that is just half the challenge.
"Our next project, which we have been working on for years, is redesigning the Lewiston port of entry to complement this," he told The Buffalo News.
"This [improvement] provides greater ability for coach lines traffic and tour buses, but the problem is getting them back to the Lewiston side without a bottleneck," he added. "It's a funding issue, but hopefully we will get some improvements [on the U.S. side]."
Mayor Paul A. Dyster of Niagara Falls, N.Y., agreed. "We are a binational region," he said. "Anything that can be done at any of our crossings in the region is very important. Hopefully, it will spur some interest in a parallel project in Lewiston."