Making it easier for vehicles to cross from Canada to the United States is in the best interest of this region, state and country. Doing so brings billions of dollars in commerce to this side of the border. That’s why approval of truck pre-inspections at the Peace Bridge is so valuable and also why traffic delays at the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge are so frustrating.
One is a success in the making. The other is a problem demanding attention, which Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., is providing.
Schumer, who is in line to become the Senate’s Democratic leader, sees that Canadians have spent millions of dollars to make traffic flow more smoothly on their side of the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge and that nothing is being done here.
Schumer recently joined officials of the Niagara Falls Bridge Commission on the New York side of that span and promised to use his considerable political clout to help fund a $64 million widening of the U.S. plaza.
The plan calls for five new inspection lanes dedicated to passenger vehicles, replacing existing commercial inspection lanes and adding a new bus processing lane, along with providing new parking and building a new canopy. The work should help with congestion created by the more than 3 million passenger vehicles Schumer says cross the bridge into the United States annually.
Cross-border traffic is important. Canadian shoppers are anxious to spend their hard-earned money over here. Western New Yorkers want to be able to visit Toronto, Niagara-on-the-Lake and elsewhere knowing that they can make an easy return trip.
Getting in the way of that are the too-long waits, some lasting hours, that Schumer says plague the busiest 50 to 70 days per year at the Lewiston bridge. As the senator accurately stated, “You sit in your car for three hours once and you’re not coming back.”
That has also been a problem at the Peace Bridge, where the issues are compounded by objections from the densely populated neighborhood in Buffalo. Among the problems has been exhaust fumes that come, at least in part, from trucks idling on the bridge, sometimes for hours, as poor plaza design and other inefficiencies slow traffic coming into the United States.
That problem, at least, is on the way to being alleviated. The federal government has declared an experiment with pre-clearance of U.S.-bound trucks a success, opening the way to new and permanent American inspection booths in Fort Erie, which has more room to accommodate that traffic.
In addition, construction there is expected to factor in lessons learned about existing inefficiencies. For example, cash transactions are expected to be banned and better radiation detectors installed. In all, with the construction of up to 12 new pre-inspection booths in Fort Erie, wait times for commercial vehicles are expected to be cut by as much as 75 percent. That will also help to smooth the way for passenger vehicles.
The cost of that project is estimated at $44 million, which is little more than a rounding error in the federal budget. It is well affordable and will be offset by the increased efficiency of operations and the critical, if less quantifiable, effect on the decision of travelers to dare crossing the border.
The success of that project shows that it is eminently possible to move traffic more smoothly. That lesson now needs to be applied at Lewiston-Queenston.
Washington could, as Schumer said, at least partially pay for the expansion of the U.S. plaza there in what would be the largest project since its construction in 1962.
We should welcome Canadian visitors who end up supporting the economy in Western New York. The least we can do is keep them from waiting hours to get here.