The Peace Bridge port of entry spans the Niagara River between Buffalo, N.Y, and Fort Erie, Ontario. It's the fourth busiest border crossing in North America, and congestion on the U.S.-bound lanes caused by truck screening is legendary. That problem could soon be solved.

An announcement by New York Senator Charles E. Schumer on June 30 that U.S. Customs and Border Protection has agreed in principle to allow primary screening of inbound trucks on the Canadian side of the bridge is the first step in alleviating much of the congestion at the inspection lanes on the U.S. side of the bridge.

The release from Senator's Schumer's office last week said that moving the screening of incoming trucks onto the Canadian side would speed up the inspection process that is currently bogged down due to insufficient space on the American side to screen trucks. It would also alleviate air-quality concerns caused by hours and hours of idling trucks, and minimize the impact of building a new Customs plaza on the surrounding community.

"Pre-screening trucks on the Canadian side is a game changing innovation that opens the door for a significantly smaller, less-polluting and less-disruptive plaza. This is a critical first step towards untangling the Peace Bridge plaza," said Schumer. "Moving the primary inspection of incoming truck traffic to Canada would be great for New York and Canadian businesses, and could be a key part of the puzzle as we seek to improve the Peace Bridge crossing. With screening moved to the other side of the border, we'll be able to build a more compact Peace Bridge plaza as we continue the effort to build a new bridge."

Currently, 100% of all trucks must go through a congested screening process on the American side of the border. Under the plan Schumer supports, 90% would be fully cleared on the Canadian side, with approximately 10% requiring additional screening in the United States. Suspicious vehicles entering the U.S. would be flagged as they came onto American soil, and made to undergo additional screening by U.S. authorities before entry would be permitted.

Congressman Brian Higgins of Western New York, and a member of the House of Representatives Committees on Homeland Security and Foreign Affairs, also supports the proposal.

"The direct engagement of the U.S. government in the process and a consensus on a reduced Peace Bridge plaza puts real steam behind what we see as the first phase of creating the increased capacity so critical to the Western New York - Southern Ontario economic relationship," he said. "This is a way forward that brings certainty to the neighborhood, adds predictability for travelers and could mean shovels in the ground significantly sooner."

Schumer and Higgins have both pledged to work with CBP to secure the necessary approval from Canadian authorities.

Not Shared Border Management

While the preliminary screening of inbound trucks would be done on Canadian soil, the process stops short of the concept of shared border management. U.S. officials working at the facility in Canada will have no enforcement power, just the authority to screen and examine persons and cargo bound for the U.S. If enforcement action is necessary, or further examination is required, the trucks and drivers will be dealt with on the U.S. side of the Peace Bridge plaza.

Homeland Secretary Janet Napolitano declared the issue of shared border management dead shortly after 9-11, and reaffirmed the agency's position recently under questioning by Congressman Higgins.

"Representative, I will be very clear. We have looked into preclearance on the Canadian side. We cannot do it. The position has not changed," she said at a recent Homeland Security Committee hearing. "When and if the bridge and the facilities are expanded on the U.S. side we are fully prepared to provide the staffing and support for that on the U.S. side. We understand the importance of the span for trade and tourism and so forth. But we are not going to be able to resolve the preclearance issues in Canada."

Matthew Davison, director of communications & government relations for the Buffalo & Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority told Truckinginfo that negotiations continue between CPB, the Bridge Authority and Canadian officials.

"The approval and support of U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Alan Bersin is integral to the eventual achievement of real, attainable, and financially viable improvements at the Peace Bridge corridor. By signaling his willingness to consider and advance the implementation of innovative border management solutions at our crossing, the federal government has effectively provided a new path forward for this very challenging project," he says. "The Authority welcomes the opportunity to move ahead with a plaza design concept that meets the goals of congestion-relief and enhanced security and will do so following official written concurrence from the Department of Homeland Security and the General Services Administration, which is expected shortly."

Davison says work on the new facilities could begin as early as three years from today.

Canadian officials could not be reached for comment over the long holiday weekend.

Opened in 1927, the Peace Bridge carried more than 6 million vehicles back and forth across the Niagara River in 2010, including 592,000 Canada-bound trucks, and 628,000 U.S.-bound trucks.

Constraints imposed by the physical location of bridge plaza on the west side of the city of Buffalo, proximity to surrounding neighborhoods, and security demands required by the Department of Homeland Security in recent years have pushed the facility far beyond its design capacity.

Canada is the leading export market for 36 U.S. states and represents a larger market for U.S. goods than all 27 European countries combined. The bilateral trade relationship represents the equivalent of $1.5 billion per day in goods.

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