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Schumer pushes $64 million upgrade to Lewiston bridge plaza

LEWISTON – Declaring traffic tie-ups of up to three hours “unacceptable,” Sen. Charles E. Schumer vowed Monday to wield his “clout” to help fund a $64 million proposal for widening the U.S. plaza at the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge.

Schumer joined officials of the Niagara Falls Bridge Commission on the New York side of the international span to back a plan calling for five new inspection lanes dedicated to passenger vehicles, and replacing existing commercial inspection lanes.

The proposal also would add a new bus processing lane, provide new parking and build a new canopy – all to reduce congestion at one of the busiest crossings on the northern border, where 3 million vehicles enter the U.S. annually.

With a significant portion of the $32 billion in annual trade between the United States and Canada trade passing over the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge, Schumer said the insufficient capacity of the New York plaza presents “sort of a pleasant problem.”

But he also said congestion problems must be addressed before the bridge becomes a victim of its own success.

“As a result of more people crossing, there’s traffic and congestion that’s causing significant wait times and serious delays at the border,” he said. “On any given day, you can spend an hour in a line of cars here at the border, and during peak hours … some visitors have experienced three-hour waits.

“You sit in your car for three hours once and you’re not coming back,” he added. “We’ve got to change that.”

Schumer pointed to $130 million worth of expansion on the Ontario side of the bridge and said Washington must duplicate Ottawa’s support by approving and at least partially paying for the biggest expansion of the U.S. plaza since its construction in 1962.

“The Lewiston-Queenston Bridge can be a boon for Western New York, for tourism, for business,” Schumer said. “We should be making it easier for people who want to come here, support our local economy and spur business growth. But right now, the sheer volume of traffic at the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge every day is making it more difficult for Canadians to come to Western New York.”

Providing easier access to Niagara County for Canadian visitors ranks as a serious matter, the senator said. He pointed out that Canadian shoppers and businesses spend approximately $1.7 billion per year in New York, and that 3 million vehicles cross the bridge annually from Canada.

He cited statistics indicating 82 percent of the value of goods bought at the Fashion Outlet Mall in Niagara County is purchased by shoppers from Canada, and 70 percent of travelers at Niagara Falls International Airport hail from across the border.

Lew Holloway, bridge commission general manager, predicted traffic will flow much faster as a result of the project. He noted that the Canadian federal government contributed about $65 million to an overall $130 million project on the Queenston side of the bridge that also aims to alleviate traffic congestion (the rest of the money stemmed from commission funds). That project kicked off in 2009 and ended in 2014.

Holloway said Schumer’s backing for the new effort is crucial because a host of projects along the northern and southern borders are all competing for a limited pot of funds. But he also said the “Beyond the Border Initiative” signed by both nations several years ago identifies the Peace Bridge and Lewiston-Queenston Bridge as priorities.

“We’re willing to work with the U.S. government to make sure whatever funding mechanism is necessary will work,” he said, adding the need is critical.

“This plaza is old; it’s tired,” Holloway said.

His view was echoed by Kathleen Neville, chairwoman of the Niagara Falls Bridge Commission, who also pointed to creation of new construction jobs as a result of the project.

“Our integrated economies depend on smooth border travel and Sen. Schumer’s ongoing advocacy for this effort has and will continue to be critical to ensuring that this vital project gets done,” she said.

Schumer said he will continue to use his influence in the Senate to ensure that federal agencies such as the General Services Administration and Customs and Border Protection approve the plan and funding request submitted by the bridge commission.