FORT ERIE, Ont. - U.S. customs officers began inspecting U.S.-bound cargo trucks in Canada Monday under a pilot program intended to relieve congestion at one of the border's busiest commercial crossings.
Authorities will watch to see whether pre-inspecting trucks on the roomier Canadian side of the Peace Bridge will reduce wait times and pollution-causing idling on the 86-year-old span between Fort Erie, Ontario, and Buffalo.
The bridge handled 1.2 million truck trips and more than $40 billion in trade last year, making it the third-busiest truck crossing on the U.S.-Canada border. The three-lane span also saw more than 4.7 million passenger cars, more than any other port of entry.
With the U.S. side of the bridge lacking space to increase capacity, lawmakers have for several years wanted to shift some inspections to Canada. But they faced a myriad of jurisdictional and other obstacles, including objections to armed U.S. officers working in Canada, which only recently armed its border officers.
"The reaction of most people was to throw up their hands and say let's forget about it, and we persisted," Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said at a news conference attended by Deputy Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and Canada's minister of public safety and emergency preparedness, Steven Blaney. "We just had to keep showing people how important this was to our mutual economy. That's the bottom line here."
The test program is the second phase of a pilot called for in the Beyond the Border Action Plan signed by President Barack Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper in December 2011. Phase 1 got underway in June at the Pacific Highway Crossing in Blaine, Wash., to test the feasibility of certain technology and procedures. The second phase will test the effect on wait times and border congestion.
Under the voluntary program, trucks equipped with transponders are inspected in Canada. Once in the U.S., the pre-inspected vehicles are directed into an enforcement booth where drivers see either a green light, signalling they've been cleared, or a red light requiring them to stop for a secondary inspection. Under the system, which keeps enforcement on the U.S. side, drivers do not know until they get to the light whether they have been flagged.
Rep. Brian Higgins, D-N.Y., said relieving congestion on the bridge also would improve air quality in the nearby Buffalo neighbourhood, where high rates of childhood asthma have been documented.
Truck drivers said they hope that taking the time to stop before crossing the bridge will pay off on the other side, but they noted the program does not address the need for more capacity on the aging span, and worry the traffic backups will persist.
"We want it to work, but it's important that this is a pilot," said David Bradley, president of the Canadian Trucking Alliance. "Really what you're talking about, one could argue, is two stops where there's currently one. We have to make sure it works, that the guard at the other side is moving the traffic quickly enough so that it flows through."
Ken Staub, a driver for Riverside Service Corp. in Buffalo, said federal rules limit the number of driving hours to 11. With the estimated hourly cost of operating a truck at $100 per hour, long delays are costly on numerous levels, he said.
"Sometimes when you get in line it could be two hours. That's $200," he said, "and it can prevent you from making your delivery."