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Automated truck fee collection to speed processing at the Peace Bridge

WASHINGTON – Trucks passing into the U.S. at the Peace Bridge soon will have to use a new automated system to pay fees that are now collected by hand at the border, a move that, along with other ongoing improvements, is expected to significantly reduce the backups of trucks on the bridge that links Buffalo with Fort Erie, Ont.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced the change Tuesday in a document it sent to Congress accompanying President Obama’s Fiscal 2017 budget proposal, saying the move could reduce truck wait times by 6.5 percent.

And while that might not sound like much, Ron Rienas, the general manager of the Peace Bridge Authority, said the cumulative impact of the change could be great.

“If you’re waiting a couple minutes, 20 seconds (in saved time) can make a big difference,” Rienas said. “And if you multiply that by 250 trucks, the saved time adds up.”

That’s particularly true, Rienas said, because Customs and Border Protection has already fixed one time-sucking problem at the Peace Bridge – outdated radiation detectors – and is in the process of fixing another, its slow Internet connection.

“Anything that reduces wait times is a good thing,” said Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo. “These are initiatives that can be implemented easily as part of a lighter, quicker, cheaper strategy.”

The technology issues at the Peace Bridge surfaced a year ago during a pilot project in which some U.S.-bound trucks were processed on the Canadian side, The Buffalo News reported at the time.

“For years, I have been pushing for an all-of-the-above approach to reducing congestion and delays at the Peace Bridge,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y. “As part of that, we secured a pilot program that will not only pave the way for full pre-inspection, but also identified other congestion-reducing changes – including automatic fee collection.”

The budget document did not specify the details of the new automated system that will be used to collect the $13.05 user fee that incoming truckers must pay if they do not purchase an annual user fee decal. And while Aaron Bowker, chief Customs and Border Protection officer and the agency’s local public affairs liaison, said he did not have details of the new system, it’s believed to be a cellphone app.

In the budget documentation the agency sent to Congress, Customs and Border Protection said the new automated user fee collection system will be implemented in a pilot project in Buffalo this year.

It also will be tested at border crossings in Detroit and El Paso, Texas, before being implemented nationwide next year.

The manual collection of user fees is inefficient, the budget document said. “The current manual process results in increased wait times and fuel costs for carriers and loss of work hours for CBP. For example, at the Port of Buffalo in FY 2015, approximately 1,700 work hours were spent performing cash collections,” which took an average of 80 to 90 seconds per vehicle.

The new fee-collection system will be the latest of several major upgrades that Customs and Border Protection initiated after the pre-clearance pilot project unveiled out-of-date technology at the Peace Bridge.

Bowker said the agency is in the process of upgrading the Internet connection speed at its Peace Bridge facilities, which had been far slower than at the Canadian side of the bridge. That slow Internet connection slowed down agents as they processed travelers coming over the bridge.

In addition, the agency installed new radiation detection systems that has led to a 50 percent decrease in false alarms, Bowker said. The old equipment somehow managed to detect low levels of naturally occurring radiation in products such as kitty litter.

Another border issue that surfaced a year ago – the requirement that empty trucks be inspected because they do not have to fill out a manifest before they arrive at the border – awaits a federal regulatory change that could be time-consuming.

But Customs and Border Protection has managed to make one more improvement that its agents seem to appreciate.

A year ago, they were still thumb-pecking away on Blackberry digital devices, an artifact of the era that brought us Britney Spears’ “Oops, I Did It Again” and President George W. Bush.

“I have a Samsung Galaxy now, believe it or not,” Bowker said. “I’ve entered the smartphone era.”