Six more lanes for traffic entering the United States and a new customs inspection building are coming to the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge under a $91 million plan officially announced Tuesday by Sen. Charles E. Schumer.
The project also will include a new 32,000-square-foot customs building, to be built as the first phase of the 4½-year project, said Kenneth Bieger, general manager of the Niagara Falls Bridge Commission. The commission operates the three international bridges in Niagara County.
The commission will pay for most of the project itself by borrowing $70 million.
Bieger said he doesn't expect a toll increase for passenger cars will be needed to pay off that debt. The commission started a five-year series of truck toll increases in 2016, and that will continue, but Bieger said that decision was not connected to the expansion project.
There are now 10 lanes for U.S.-bound traffic at the bridge. There will be 16 lanes when the project is complete. Five of the new lanes will be used for autos or trucks, depending on the traffic situation on any given day. The sixth lane will be reserved for buses.
The Lewiston-Queenston Bridge is the fourth-busiest international bridge on the U.S.-Canadian border. Counting both directions, there are 2.6 million passenger vehicle crossings and 800,000 truck crossings a year.
"We want every person who crosses this bridge to do it safely and quickly," Schumer said at a news conference beneath the secondary inspection canopy, one of the structures slated for demolition to make way for the additional traffic lanes.
The existing customs building also will be razed. The new building and inspection canopy will be erected north of the existing plaza.
"The current facility they're in now is only 5,000 square feet, so you can see the increase in size they're going to have," Bieger said. "That's going to be done in the spring of 2020, or about a year and a half from now."
Improved border access is important to the local economy, Schumer said.
"Canadian shoppers alone spend $1.7 billion (a year) in New York," Schumer said. "That creates jobs, makes our stores and our restaurants and everything else more prosperous."
Although the Bridge Commission is footing most of the bill, the U.S. General Services Administration agreed in May to a 20-year lease for Customs and Border Protection and other federal agencies at the bridge, paying $3.45 million a year for 92,000 square feet of space.
"This lease made the project financially feasible," Bieger said.
John Mahar, the Bridge Commission's manager of capital projects, said the GSA also kicked in $8.7 million to pay for specialized equipment connected with the work.
The project will have to be done in stages to keep traffic flowing, but eventually all the existing inspection booths, erected in 1962, will be demolished and replaced with new ones, Bieger said.
The demolition of the existing customs building and canopy will make room for the new lanes.
"We're going to have 10 lanes open all the way through the construction," Bieger vowed. "We may knock down two, while we put in two new ones. The phasing is why it's going to take 4½ years."
Schumer said the project will enable Customs and Border Protection to use the most up-to-date security technology.
"We all know protecting our borders is more important than ever, for terrorism, smuggling, drugs and everything else," Schumer said.
The project will create about 200 construction jobs.
"Since these are government construction jobs, these are good-paying middle-class jobs," Schumer said.
The $91 million project actually represents the second phase of improvements at the bridge.
The first phase, completed in 2016, included a new duty-free store, a 1,300-foot concrete wall used as a noise buffer, and some realignment of Interstate 190 leading onto the bridge. That package cost $21 million and was designed to prepare for the expanded customs plaza, Mahar said.
Plans for the enlarged plaza have been on the drawing board for about 10 years, Mahar said.