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Tighter Security at Local Border Crossings

By Eileen Buckley

Buffalo, NY – Processing cars and trucks at the four international border crossings linking Buffalo Niagara to Canada changed forever after the events of September 11th.

Trucks and cars line up at the U.S. Customs Plaza at the Peace Bridge waiting to move through the inspection booths. Custom inspectors may ask for identification from the driver and passengers. Proper photo ID, such as a drivers license or passport, is acceptable. General Manager of the Peace Bridge Authority, Steven Mayer, says birth certificates are also needed when traveling with children.

"If you are prepared it does two things. Number one, it makes for a more secure environment, because they (customs) know who you are with your documentation," Mayer said. "Number two, it facilitates the movement of people. We are also looking at the trucking industry to make sure all the trucks that cross the Peace Bridge and Lewiston-Queenston have sent their documents ahead of time so they are prepared to cross, and Customs and INS know what is on the trucks."

Michelle Stevens of Buffalo owns a summer home at Bay Beach, Ontario, frequently crossing the Peace Bridge with her family. Stevens says she's been commuting to Canada during the summer for about 20 years.

"It seemed before September 11th they were concerned about tobacco, alcohol and firearms. Now they question where you are from, where do you live, what's your purpose in Canada, and how long are you staying," Stevens said. "Occasionally you get the question what did you do today, and what are you bringing back from Canada. They are definitely trying to catch you off guard they're definitely doing more random searches of cars."

But what makes a car appear suspicious? Chief inspector of U.S. Customs in Buffalo, Mark MacVittie, says he is not allowed to discuss reasons for random vehicle searches.

"September 11th has driven home the fact that when you are crossing the United States into Canada, you are crossing an international border. But I don't think legitimate travelers and trucking companies need to be concerned as long as they prepare in advance," MacVittie said. "Their border crossing experience should be very similar to what it use to be. again we are concentrating our efforts on those individuals or entities that pose a threat to the United States."

Increased security has, at times, created long lines at the bridges, but it is all in an effort to crack down on any potential terrorist threats and ensure safety. Commuter Michelle Stevens says the longest wait on the Peace Bridge she encountered was during the 4th of July holiday.

"I was standing in line two-and-a-half hours to get back from the beach on 4th of July weekend," she said. "There was no one losing their mind. People were very patient, rolling down windows and sharing conversations, walking dogs, sharing water, directions and information. It wasn't a pleasant experience, but it was certainly bearable."

But processing commuters and visitors is just a slice of what happens at the all four border crossings. Keeping the flow of trucks in and out of the U.S. and Canada is essential for trade. The Peace Bridge Authority's Steven Mayer says it is estimated that $1.4 billion dollars in cross border trade occurs between the two countries, with almost $120 million dollars a day crossing over the Peace Bridge.

Another trade corridor between the two countries is the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge, the fourth busiest commercial crossing, operated by the the Niagara Falls Bridge Commission. Even before the events of last September 11th, there was a slight drop in truck traffic. Thomas Garlock, general manager of the Bridge Commission, says that indicated softer economies in both the U.S. and Canada. But then a dramatic decrease occurred after 9/11 that lasted through October.

"I would say by November things started to return to a normal volume and pace," Garlock said. "In fact our truck traffic at Lewiston-Queenston is up a little bit this year from the same period time a year ago. But downtime does cost money, no question about it."

Garlock took WBFO on a tour of three of the area's border crossings. Along with the Lewiston-Queenston, the Commission also monitors the Rainbow and Whirlpool Bridges. Garlock says when the terrorist attacks occurred last September, Whirlpool was the only bridge to close. The border never shut down. Staff from the Whirlpool Bridge was instead deployed to assist at the busier Rainbow and Lewiston-Queenston crossings.

The Whirlpool remained closed and reopened this past May to only Can-Pass commuters, pre-approved to travel through customs. There is also another pre-approved background check program for truck drivers, known as "Fast." And in an effort to ease traffic congestion at the other border crossings, Garlock says they're working something called "NEXUS."

"We have every confidence that Whirlpool is going to be playing a major role going forward with the NEXUS system," Garlock said. "While NEXUS will speed your passage over the border at all crossings eventually, you still have the situation of approaching the border and being on the bridge with non-NEXUS holders. That would not be the case at the Whirpool. It will be dedicated to NEXUS holders, that's our plan at this time, so you would be able to cross very, very quickly."

High tech equipment, such as a gamma ray scanner to examine truck loads is already being used at the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge. The Commission says there are plans to implement it for processing trucks at other border crossings in the future. Garlock says the Niagara Falls Bridge Commission is "optimistic" that by next summer more personal will be hired at all four borders crossings to help ease traffic lines.