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Plan to screen trucks may ease Peace Bridge traffic

Prescreening of Buffalo-bound truck traffic in Fort Erie, Ont., will begin soon, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Wednesday, while Rep. Brian Higgins indicated that move could be the first step toward reviving plans for a new Peace Bridge.

At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in Washington, Sen. Charles E. Schumer asked Napolitano whether the prescreening of U.S.-bound truck traffic would begin soon at the Peace Bridge, and her reply was, "Yes."

She said her department is looking to do pre-inspections on the Canadian side of the border at other congested northern border crossings as well.

"We really are very interested in how we can expedite the free flow of goods on both borders, northern and southern, and looking at ways where we can do pre-inspections, if not actual pre-clearance, on the Canadian side and to facilitate that into some of the smaller areas on to the U.S. side," Napolitano said.

"So you've clearly got our attention, we've been working on this," she told the senator.

Schumer, Higgins and other members of the Western New York congressional delegation have been pushing for months for a plan for prescreening most truck traffic on the Canadian side of the border.

The idea was revived once it became clear that federal funding was lacking for a huge, $350 million expanded Peace Bridge plaza in Buffalo -- a plan that had been fiercely fought by residents of the neighborhoods near the bridge.

Schumer, who announced earlier this month that the pre-inspection plan was in the works and that it would be unveiled in November, said he was delighted with Napolitano's comments.

"The Peace Bridge's clogged arteries are about to undergo bypass surgery," said Schumer, D-N.Y. "Moving this traffic to the Canadian side will be a shot in the arm for tourism, businesses throughout Western New York and our overall economy. No longer will tourists and trucks be stuck for eons in smog-creating lines as they try to cross the bridge."

Higgins, D-Buffalo, described the pending plan as a "lite" version of shared border management, an earlier proposal for moving all U.S. customs clearance activity to the Canadian side of the bridge. That plan fell apart because Canadian law would not allow U.S. agents to carry guns in Canada and because of other concerns.

Under the new plan, trucks would be screened first on the Canadian side, while anything with potentially questionable cargo would be inspected more closely in Buffalo, as would passenger traffic.

"It's not shared border management -- it's half of it," Higgins said. "But with this, we could proceed with plans for a smaller American plaza."

And once plans for a new plaza are in place, that could lead to a revival of an effort to build a new Peace Bridge, Higgins said at a meeting of The Buffalo News editorial board.

"Once the plaza is done, we can focus on the bridge," Higgins said, adding he does not plan to let the matter drop.

Given that New York has to find a way to replace the Tappan Zee Bridge over the Hudson River north of New York City -- a $6 billion project -- Higgins said the state may want to combine that effort with other infrastructure projects, perhaps funding it all through a bond act.

Buffalo has a convincing argument for a new Peace Bridge, he said.

"The larger issue is the economic viability of Western New York," he said, adding he still believes additional capacity is needed at the Niagara River crossing.

Ford Motor Co. recently committed to expansion at its Buffalo Stamping Plant in Hamburg because of its proximity to Ford facilities in Southern Ontario. But congestion at the bridge remains a concern, Higgins said, and officials on both sides of the border must make every effort to expedite travel between Buffalo and metropolitan Toronto.

"With a new bridge and a more efficient flow of traffic, [Canadians] will more readily make that trip," he said.

Higgins has pressed Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Alan Bersin and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to move forward on a deal with the Canadian government that would allow the pre-inspection of trucks to go forward.

And last month, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., joined Higgins, Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, D-Fairport, and Rep. Kathleen C. Hochul, D-Amherst, in writing to Bersin to urge him to work to complete the pre-screening plan.

But not until Wednesday did Napolitano announce such a plan was in the works.

"Today, Secretary Napolitano confirmed that all of our hard work is paying off," Schumer said.

e-mail: jzremski@buffnews.com and rmccarthy@buffnews.com