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New Peace Bridge customs building aims to speed truck inspections

Not long ago, when U.S. customs officers needed to unload a truck to inspect its cargo, all they had to work with was a 10-foot wide space behind the cargo bay.

It was too small for motorized unloaders, forcing inspectors to remove cargo manually, and wasn’t even big enough for inspectors to unload the bulk of a truck’s contents.

Not anymore.

A new $24 million U.S. Customs office and truck inspection facility on the Peace Bridge plaza that officially opened on Friday should speed up processing times and help ease air pollution in the surrounding neighborhood, because of the building’s energy-efficient design and the expected drop in truck emissions as the faster inspections reduce the amount of time trucks spend idling while waiting their turn.

With the renovation, the dock space in the cargo area also has greatly increased, giving inspectors much more room to unload trucks during the inspection process. The new space has 40 feet of dock space behind each bay, which allows for the use of motorized equipment to unload a truck’s contents. In some cases, that can reduce unloading times by as much as 75 percent.

It also has two additional cargo bays, including one in a secure area.

The extensive renovations and expansion of the 65-year-old office building next to Front Park, with the upgraded cargo bays, are part of a broader five-year, $186 million improvement plan underway at the Peace Bridge plaza.

“Welcome to the 21st century,” said Sam Hoyt, the chairman of the Peace Bridge Authority, during a ceremony to mark the official opening of the U.S. Customs Commercial Building. “For too long, we’ve been living in the previous century.”

The new building will make it more efficient for customs officers to carry out inspections on some of the 940,000 trucks that cross the Peace Bridge each year, said Rose Hilmey, acting director of the Buffalo field office of the Customs and Border Protection Service.

“Economically, this is a huge deal,” said Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown. “This will make the border crossing experience better.”

The renovation work, carried out in phases over the past two years, increased the size of the building by more than 50 percent to more than 67,000 square feet of space. The high-efficiency building, which is eligible for LEED certification, is expected to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions associated with its operations by 86 percent, Hoyt said.

The new building and the expected reduction in the time trucks spend idling should lead to better air quality in the neighborhoods near the Peace Bridge plaza, said Assemblyman Sean Ryan, D-Buffalo.

“We look at this, from a neighborhood perspective, as a victory in several ways,” Ryan said. Along with an improvement in the building’s appearance, “this customs building is one more step in moving traffic across the bridge and out of the plaza.”

The building, which had been remodeled on a piecemeal basis several times before the latest renovation, also houses offices for the Customs Service, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, along with space that is leased to seven commercial customs brokers.