WASHINGTON -- Congress has given its final approval to legislation intended to cut congestion on the Peace Bridge by allowing U.S. officials to inspect truck cargo at the larger inspection plaza on the Canadian side in Fort Erie.
By voice vote, the Senate Friday approved the Promoting Travel, Commerce and National Security Act of 2016, which would allow U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents to operate in Canada. Canada still must pass similar enacting legislation, and then the two countries would have to strike diplomatic agreements to allow cargo "pre-clearance" to ocur at the Peace Bridge and other border crossings.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat who helped push the bill through the Senate, said its passage should be a signal to Canada to get moving on similar legislation.
"My bottom line is: Canada, we've done our part; now do yours," Schumer said. "I think it's moving, but it could move a little quicker. And this could be the shot in the arm that gets them to move."
Similar legislation was introduced in Canada in June, and is expected to come before Parliament in January, said Ron Rienas, general manager of the Peace Bridge Authority and a Canadian. Rienas said he has heard of no objections to the Canadian legislation, at least as of yet.
Once Canada passes similar legislation, the two countries still would have to strike a deal to begin pre-clearance at the Peace Bridge.
"I think that would happen, and I think it could happen within a year," Schumer said.
Senate approval of the legislation came a day after the House passed the measure by voice vote.
"This legislation continues the long tradition of U.S.-Canada coordination toward the goal of strengthening security and our economies," said Rep. Brian Higgins, a Buffalo Democrat who pushed for the bill on the House side.
Higgins warned, though, that the final passage of the bill -- which President Barack Obama is expected to sign -- will not guarantee that truck inspections will shift to the Canadian side anytime soon.
"Still significant legal hurdles remain relative to full land cargo pre-clearance and more must be done to see significant progress at the Peace Bridge," Higgins said.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials cleared some cargo in Canada during a successful 2014 pilot project, but moving all U.S. cargo inspection to the Canadian side would take not only Canadian legislation and a diplomatic agreement, but also millions for new infrastructure.
Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand praised the legislation as a good start toward a noble goal.
"Making the pre-inspection at the Peace Bridge permanent will enhance the security of the transfer of goods and services across the border, boost New York’s economy, and preserve and strengthen our economic ties with Canada," she said.
Rienas stressed, too, that the legislation could have important ramifications at border crossings of all sorts in both countries.
For example, he said the legislation -- if approved by both countries -- would allow Canadian customs inspectors to work at the new railroad station in Niagara Falls, N.Y. In addition, it could pave the way for an agreement that would allow Canadian customs inspectors to work on the American side of the Seaway International Bridge in Massena, in the North Country.
Border-state lawmakers introduced the bill in both houses of Congress earlier this year. Senators originally attached it to a bill reauthorizing funding for the Federal Aviation Administration, which quickly got caught up in an unrelated partisan battle over whether to allow commercial airline pilots to carry guns in the cockpit.
That being the case, lawmakers on both sides of Capitol Hill decided to push the border legislation through on its own.
That happened without any objections, Schumer said.
"It was just a matter of explaining it to enough people," he said.