The serpent is asleep right now, but unless something changes, come next summer, cars and trucks will once again snake back from Canadian Customs booths, snarling traffic, creating delays and threatening economies on both sides of the Niagara River.
With children back in school and as cooler temperatures settle in, cross-border traffic has predictably eased, disguising the problems that plagued motorists entering Canada this summer.
At those crossings, insufficient staffing created unnecessary and unwanted backups that inevitably discouraged travel in both directions: Americans entering Canada would think twice before risking long border waits, but so would Canadians entering the United States, knowing the trial that awaited on their return.
Seven mayors from both sides of the border, including Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown, wrote a letter of complaint to Ralph Goodale, Canada’s minister of public safety and preparedness.
“The situation is intolerable,” they wrote. “The local economies, the safety of our residents and workers at the bridge, commercial shipments and the proper management of our border crossings are all at the mercy of the Canada Border Services Agency.”
It’s a killer. Canada’s failure to staff its border operations threatens businesses all along the frontier, from Orchard Park to Youngstown and from Fort Erie to Niagara-on-the-Lake.
How many Americans would be dissuaded from a spur-of-the-moment trip to Toronto for fear of a frustrating and time-wasting holdup at the international crossing? How many Canadians will skip a chance to see a play at Shea’s Performing Arts Center or pass on a Sabres game at KeyBank Center or the Bills at New Era Field for the same reason?
Several factors have contributed to insufficient staffing on the Canadian side of the border. Among them are ill-considered government cutbacks, union vacation rules and a decision to arm border officers.
With the initial and ongoing weapons training that decision creates, the government can no longer make up for vacationing agents with college students on summer vacation.
This issue has come up repeatedly this year and it just did again, with Rep. Brian Higgins insisting that he will keep pushing for adequate staffing by Canadians, even though lines are shorter at this time of year.
It’s an important point, because this is the time for government to plan for improvement. If no one protests until spring, another summer travel season could be polluted by long lines at the border.
This is an issue with which travelers to the United States were once familiar. It wasn’t that many years ago that motorists crossing in this direction encountered long delays in Buffalo, Niagara Falls and Lewiston, and the reason was the same: inadequate staffing.
Fortunately, Congress noticed and at the insistence of leaders such as Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., the Department of Homeland Security put more agents to work, easing transit times while still allowing those agents to perform their critical tasks.
Schumer, in fact, keeps pushing for better traffic flow at the border.
He and Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand just announced that the federal government will spend $7.8 million to improve traffic management in the region, particularly at border crossings.
The money will go toward developing new ways to inform travelers of traffic conditions, including weather information, and to improve response to traffic incidents.
Over the past few years, Americans have learned important lessons in border efficiency from their Canadian counterparts on matters ranging from pre-payment of border fees to faster internet speeds at border booths.
Now, perhaps Canadians can take a page from their American friends and find a way to improve staffing.
It would be to everyone’s benefit.