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Up to 100 new agents approved for Buffalo Niagara border crossings

WASHINGTON – U.S. Customs and Border Protection plans to bolster the number of agents at the border between Buffalo and Canada in the coming months, spelling relief for travelers who have endured increasing wait times at the Peace Bridge and the region’s other bridges.

The agency announced the additional agents Monday in an email to congressional offices. The email did not specify the number of new agents for the Buffalo region or where, precisely, they will work, but a source with knowledge of the situation said the region can expect about 100 new agents who will work at the Peace Bridge as well as the three passenger bridges in Niagara Falls.

That news prompted joy among elected officials who had been pressing for more agents to alleviate longer wait times at the region’s bridges, and especially at the Peace Bridge.

“Custom and Border Protection’s official confirmation that scores of new agents will be deployed to the Peace Bridge is great news for Buffalo and the entire region of Western New York,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y. “The lane closures and excessive delays at the Peace Bridge were directly related to staffing issues, so today’s announcement strikes right at the heart of the problem, and will get things moving in the right direction again.”

Schumer helped secure an additional $165 million in the fiscal 2014 federal budget to fund an additional 2,000 agents nationwide, and the Customs and Border Protection announcement on Monday was the first clear indication where those agents would be assigned.

The agency said those 2,000 agents will be assigned to 44 “ports” across 18 states, including four in New York: Buffalo, Alexandria Bay, Champlain and the John F. Kennedy International Airport area in New York City. In the agency’s jargon, the Buffalo port includes the Peace Bridge, the Rainbow Bridge, the Whirlpool Bridge and the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge.

The additional officers are being allocated on the basis of need at land, sea and air ports across the country, the agency said.

While sources said some of the additional agents could be assigned locally within the coming months, Customs and Border Protection said it will complete the process for hiring the new offices by Sept. 30, 2015.

“In the coming weeks, CBP will be meeting with local stakeholders at each of the ports of entry to discuss the allocation of the staff in greater detail,” the agency said.

In addition to Schumer, Reps. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, and Chris Collins, R-Clarence, have been pressing for additional staffing at the Peace Bridge, where wait times for travelers nearly doubled in 2013.

“This is a good thing,” Higgins said regarding the customs announcement. “There’s always a concern that Customs and Border Protection has a disproportionate focus on the southern border, and we have worked very hard to press the agency to recognize that both for homeland security and economic activity at the northern border, it’s important to have those customs booths fully staffed.”

Ron Rienas, general manager of the Peace Bridge Authority, agreed, saying he hoped that some of the additional officers will be assigned before the bridge’s peak travel season, which runs from May through October.

“Having officers in those booths then will make a tremendous difference,” Rienas said.

The additional officers come at a time when major changes are underway at the Peace Bridge.

Construction will be taking place this summer to improve access to the bridge on the American side, Rienas said.

In addition, some U.S.-bound cargo is now being pre-inspected on the Canadian side of the bridge as part of a demonstration project that could result in a permanent move of that truck pre-inspection process to the larger Fort Erie plaza.

“The increase in CBP agents combined with the progress of the pre-inspection pilot program, which we have all worked so long to see come to fruition, will go a long way toward reducing congestion at the Peace Bridge,” Schumer said. “It’s a huge shot in the arm for the security and efficiency of the Peace Bridge border crossing – which will in turn create economic benefits for years to come.”