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Canadian bridge backups increase as customs juggles staff

Travelers from Canada crossing New York’s border bridges are beginning to encounter significant delays at times when clearing customs normally proves a breeze.

And with signs pointing to bridge backups caused by the reassignment of some Buffalo area personnel to the southern border, no real answers to long term questions are readily available. That’s because the Department of Homeland Security has missed its Aug. 1 deadline for a report to Congress on how to handle the situation – with more than a month of peak summer travel time remaining.

Area bridge managers say U.S. Customs and Border Protection is demonstrating remarkable flexibility in handling the rushes on weekends and holidays, but staffing up for peak times might mean leaner weekday crews and long waits at the bridges.

Aaron Bowker, customs’ chief officer for field operations at Buffalo, said his agency has realized all along that the dozens of officers transferred to the U.S.-Mexico border from across upstate New York to handle the onslaught of asylum-seekers would cause problems.

“We’re trying to minimize that effect as much as possible,” he said. “But as a result, you might see delays of 20 to 30 minutes during the week that you would not see normally. The reason is we are not going to take away resources from our enforcement mission.”

The delays also result, Bowker said, from customs managers beefing up inspections staff during peak weekend and holiday periods by borrowing from the slower, weekday shifts. The Lewiston-Queenston Bridge reported a 50-minute delay on Monday.

But he also explained that CBP places primary emphasis on interdicting drugs, smuggled goods and people at the border. With more illegal activity, more personnel could be shifted from inspection to enforcement. He pointed to Ontario’s legalization of marijuana as an example, as more U.S. citizens bring the drug home, causing a “drastic increase” in seizures at all New York State crossings from Canada.

From October 2017 to July 2018, he said, customs made 670 seizures of about 590 pounds of marijuana, because it remains illegal in the United States and CBP has instituted a “zero tolerance” policy. From October of 2018 to July, those figures jumped to 786 seizures and more than 3,000 pounds.

His agents are also on the lookout for weapons, wanted criminals and child pornography.

“It’s a delicate balance, but the enforcement stuff has to take place,” he said. “So if there is a delay of 15 to 30 minutes, we consider that acceptable because we’re trying to focus on the enforcement mission.”

But no one knows how the government will address the local situation because Homeland Security has missed an Aug. 1 report deadline set by Congress. Lawmakers required DHS to indicate by then the number of officers temporarily assigned to the southwest border in response to unprecedented volumes of asylum-seekers; how long officers will be away from northern border assignments; northern border ports affected; and resulting effects.

DHS did not return requests from The Buffalo News on Tuesday seeking information about the effects and missed deadline.

The News reported in May that 37 officers were transferred from the Buffalo field office – which covers all of upstate – for 60-day temporary assignments, followed by another 49, some of whom would replace those already sent to the southern border.

Now the binational agencies operating the Peace Bridge and Niagara County crossings say the staff shortages are causing unanticipated problems.

Ron Rienas, general manager of the Peace Bridge Authority, credited CBP with a “very good job” by reacting with as much flexibility as possible. Some delays, such as the one occurring Sunday in Fort Erie, Ont., that stretched past the duty free store, are caused by “sheer volume.” Every U.S. inspection booth was staffed, he said, but too many vehicles caused the backup.

But “robbing Peter to pay Paul” by borrowing from weekday shifts for the busy weekends are often causing 40-minute delays he said are “not acceptable.”

“Last Tuesday there were delays of 40 to 45 minutes before 8 a.m., and that took a while to clear up,” he said. “There are lots of commuters from Canada to Buffalo in the summer and I know they have not been happy.

“But if all lanes are open, I can’t criticize customs,” he added.

Similar problems are haunting the three Niagara County crossings operated by the Niagara Falls Bridge Commission, according to CEO Kenneth N. Bieger. Automobile traffic has decreased by 3.5% (trucks are up 2%), he said, and the lower volumes have helped, but delays are still occurring.

His staff reported smooth operations over the early summer holidays, he said, but lately the lines have grown longer.

“All in all, the local CBP tries to be out in front of it,” he said, noting that weekday delays are also taking place on commission bridges because of staff adjustments.

49 more upstate customs officers to be transferred to southern border

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