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Kerlikowske should push the effort to move truck inspections to Canada

It’s good to see the head of U.S. Customs and Border Protection in town to examine the 6-month-old pilot program to inspect U.S.-bound trucks before they cross the Peace Bridge. For Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske, the visit also must being back memories of the long, frustrating delays in trying to cross the border and encourage him to recommend the program be made permanent.

Kerlikowske is intimately familiar with the Peace Bridge and attendant issues. He was commissioner of the Buffalo Police Department from 1994 to 1999, before moving on to Seattle and finally the federal government. He was sworn in to run Customs about five months ago, and the timing couldn’t have been better for Western New York.

Customs officers this winter began inspecting trucks bound for the United States at the Fort Erie plaza, in a test of a possible way to ease congestion at the busy Peace Bridge and smooth the way for cargo entering the United States. Kerlikowske described the experiment as another example of the agency’s effort to safely expedite travel and commerce. We call it hope for a better travel experience between the two nations.

The pilot program could result in the eventual move of all initial truck inspections to the Fort Erie side of the bridge. Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., took the lead in persuading the Department of Homeland Security to select Fort Erie for one of two pilot programs. He also added an amendment to the Senate-passed Comprehensive Immigration Reform bill in June 2013 that will make the preclearance programs permanent if deemed successful.

David Bradley, president and CEO of the Canadian Trucking Alliance, which represents 4,500 trucking companies, has mostly given the inspection strategy good marks.

He said he has heard few complaints, although he would like to see truckers freed of the second stop they must make after crossing the Peace Bridge before they can actually continue on their routes. However, that extra stop and the short delay it adds are not likely to be going away, according to Randy J. Howe, director of field operations for the agency’s Buffalo Field Office.

Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, who accompanied Kerlikowske during part of his tour last week, had a lot to say about the success of the Fort Erie inspection effort. Higgins is dead-on when he talks about the Canadian side’s logistically functional and aesthetically pleasing plaza, while “the American side is really an unmitigated disaster.”

It doesn’t have to be that way.

Efforts are under way to remake the plaza on the U.S. side. That will mean better traffic flow and more inspection booths. In the meantime, as many as 60 new officers will be distributed in 2015 among the four bridges over the Niagara River, another move that should contribute to speedier travel.

Schumer helped secure $165 million in the 2014 federal budget to fund an additional 2,000 agents nationwide. The plan involved assigning agents to 44 entry “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.

Delays at the Peace Bridge have been a fact of border life for decades. Drawing on his firsthand knowledge of the problem, Kerlikowske should push to permanently move truck inspections to Canada.