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Cars crossed the Peace Bridge 1.1 million fewer times last year compared to 2003.

Of that, 45,000 fewer trucks crossed the Niagara River span between Buffalo and Fort Erie, Ont.

So why do Peace Bridge officials want to spend tens of millions of dollars to widen the bridge approach to the U.S. plaza and build a ramp and underpass to the Niagara Thruway?

They want reduce truck backups and improve traffic flow – neither of which can happen by reduced traffic levels alone.

“Those are good projects that will make a difference but do not involve expanding the plaza,” said Ron Rienas, general manager at the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority, commonly known as the Peace Bridge Authority.

The bridge authority also counts on a pilot project that will allow American personnel to inspect U.S.-bound trucks in Fort Erie as a way to improve traffic flow across the Peace Bridge.

With the inspecting and processing of trucks done on the Canadian side of the border, but with enforcement done in the United States, the project should free up more space passenger cars on the plaza.

Though the project focuses on trucks, “the benefits accrue to the cars,” Rienas said.

All the projects are designed to improve the traffic flow out of the plaza.

The amount of processing time and document review has increased at the primary inspection booths compared with 2001. It takes far longer, which is why there is more congestion even though there is less traffic.

As for trucks, all it takes is a handful designated for further inspection – without adequate parking space to accommodate the rigs – to keep all of the other trucks stuck in line behind them, even those cleared during their first inspection.

The Peace Bridge was one of two places picked for the pilot project.

U.S. Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., announced the pilot agreement in October after yearlong negotiations involving the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and its Canadian counterpart.

The Western New York congressional delegation has supported the concept. However, several environmental and community groups, as well as residential neighbors, object to measures they say would bring more trucks through the West Side neighborhood and aggravate health and air pollution concerns.

The pilot concept will be tested first at a border crossing in Blaine, Wash., before coming to the Peace Bridge.

Government and bridge officials will study data collected over six months in Blaine before beginning the 18-month project here.

Now, nine of every 10 trucks that cross the Peace Bridge are released after their initial inspections, with just one of 10 directed to undergo secondary inspection.

It is that one out of every 10 trucks that blocks traffic in the cramped U.S. plaza. By moving inspection duties over to Fort Erie, where there is more acreage available, more space is freed up on the U.S. for trucks to park for their secondary inspections, out of the way of the trucks cleared to depart the plaza.

Officials here want to see if the new inspection set-up in Washington changes how many trucks are referred for further inspections there.

Peace Bridge officials want to be prepared if they detect a change in the percentage of trucks cleared after initial inspections at the Washington crossing, Rienas said.

The pilot project may begin at the Peace Bridge in late summer or early fall, he said.

A previous “shared border management” effort failed in 2007, in part, because the two countries could not agree on how U.S. and Canadian customs officers should respond to any vehicle turned back from entering the United States. The Department of Homeland Security insisted that any such vehicle be apprehended by U.S. officials working in Fort Erie, with the driver and passengers fingerprinted. Canadian officials said that would violate the Canadian Constitution, which provides that no one may be arrested without probable cause.

Under the pilot project, the truck drivers would be questioned by U.S. officials in Fort Erie, but the drivers would cross the Peace Bridge before being told if they were cleared.

A ‘go/no go” message would be sent to inspectors in enforcement booths on the Buffalo plaza, who would then tell the drivers if they were subject to more inspections or enforcement actions.

There’s space in Fort Erie for 12 lanes with inspection booths for the U.S.-bound trucks, Rienas said.

Two enforcement booths for the trucks would be installed on the U.S. plaza.

Another project, the $10 million-plus widening project, would provide an additional 215,000 square feet of approach space for U.S.-bound vehicles.

The 500-feet wide by 60-feet long concrete deck would allow better access to a NEXUS lane for travelers in that program.

It would get trucks off the bridge quicker, Rienas said.

Construction is expected to begin this fall, with a construction schedule of one to two years.

The exit-ramp and underpass project is scheduled to begin this spring, with construction expected to last a year.

Now, vehicles leaving the U.S. plaza cross paths depending on which exit they want, one for the northbound Niagara Thruway and the other for the southbound Niagara Thruway.

The authority plans to create a single plaza exit point and eliminate the criss-crossing traffic patterns.

The new ramp – to be built over the current entrance way into the plaza for vehicles coming from the northbound Niagara Thruway – would allow exiting cars wanting to head north on the Niagara Thruway to access the entry to that expressway after driving around the perimeter of Front Park.

email: plakamp@buffnews.com