Construction on the Peace Bridge lanes begins Nov. 15 that will reduce lanes from three to two, and when that happens, officials who run the international span view two possible scenarios:
- Traffic will flow smoothly and with little interruption if Customs agencies on both sides of the border adequately staff their inspection booths.
- Significant traffic jams and long delays will result if they don't.
Peace Bridge Authority officials are intensifying pressure on the Canadian Border Services Agency to ensure enough agents will staff their booths in Fort Erie, Ont. So far they have not been successful.
After a peak tourism month in August that recorded major traffic jams because the Canadian agency could not adequately staff booths, Peace Bridge General Manager Ron Rienas expresses little confidence that Ottawa will prepare for the construction situation either.
Unless something changes, he said, delays for Canada-bound traffic are inevitable. And Canadian officials so far are ignoring concerns of U.S. officials and businesses on both sides of the border.
"If Customs staffs properly, there will be zero impact," he said. "U.S. Customs and Border Protection say they will provide additional staff. We're still awaiting a similar answer from CBSA."
A preview of major problems to come occurred Thursday evening, following the Montreal Canadiens-Buffalo Sabres game at Key Bank Arena, Rienas said. While U.S. officials opened all Buffalo-bound lanes for the start of the game, only four lanes were staffed on the Canadian side when the game ended around 10 p.m. A long backup did not clear until 12:30 a.m. Friday, he said, while trucks were delayed until 2 a.m.
"They say it will be better but we simply see no improvement, If anything, it's been worse," he said. "Four open lanes for a Montreal Canadiens game? It's no way to run a border."
As a result, he predicted that long backups will stretch onto the northbound Niagara Thruway during construction, which is expected to last six months, presenting a major safety problem.
Most problems stem from the Canadians' inability to hold agents for overtime because of union rules, he said.
Rienas also noted that the Peace Bridge Authority opted to concentrate its multi-year, $185 million deck replacement project during off-peak months of November to May. Wintertime conditions will result in a more expensive price tag, but the authority sought to avoid closing one lane during the peak summer months and the resulting traffic tie-ups.
He said the winter construction option will work, but only if the Canadians make the same staffing commitment as U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
"In wintertime, this certainly is not the Tappan Zee Bridge," he said, referring to the heavily traveled crossing over the Hudson River. "It's more like a two-lane country road."
A traffic study conducted for the authority by Jacobs Civil Consultants of New York City, Rienas said, confirmed that the bridge can handle the relatively low level of traffic during winter months -- but only with adequate staffing at peak times.
Authority Chairman Sam Hoyt said CBP Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske (the former Buffalo police commissioner) made it "unequivocally clear" during a recent Washington meeting that his agency will adapt to the construction situation.
"If the Canadian government doesn't do the same, we could have very serious backups during the construction cycle at peak times," he said.
Hoyt noted that he and Rienas traveled to Ottawa in August to plead their case while rallying the U.S. and Canadian business communities.
"It needs to be made abundantly clear this is not just about inconvenience, it's about the economy, jobs, and serious economic impact on both sides," he said.
Hoyt added authority officials are willing to make another Ottawa trip to impress upon CBSA officials the importance of the situation.
In the meantime, local U.S. officials such as Rep. Brian Higgins and Sen. Charles E. Schumer continue to press the case. In August Schumer wrote to CBSA President Linda Lizotte-MacPherson asking she immediately address staffing issues at all Niagara River crossings.
"The lack of predictability of bridge wait times disincentivizes travelers on both sides of the border," Schumer wrote, "which means our shared economies are missing out on valuable tourism dollars, particularly in the summer months."
The governments of Buffalo, Niagara Falls, N.Y. and Niagara Falls, Ont. have also weighed in seeking Ottawa's attention to the situation.
Member of Parliament Rob Nicholson of Niagara Falls, Ont. did not return a call seeking comment. Neither did CBSA officials, though in the past they have noted they make every effort to maintain adequate staffing levels.