With the demolition of vacant houses on Busti Avenue, there is again speculation regarding Peace Bridge Authority plans for expansion of the U.S. customs plaza. Such speculation is premature.
The acquisition, demolition and landscaping of the property was a long-standing commitment of the authority. Nine years ago, there was an agreement with the City of Buffalo whereby the city would demolish the homes. In 2009, the authority was prepared to proceed with demolition but held off due to the capacity expansion environmental impact statement process. With the termination of that process in January 2012, the authority initiated the long-delayed plan to remove the houses.
In terms of the demolitions not being determinative of any future plaza expansion plans:
• Before any plaza expansion plans can be finalized, the authority requires an answer from the governments of Canada and the United States as to whether truck inspection can be relocated to Canada. That determination will occur only after a pilot test, which is not expected to be completed until mid-2015.
• Given ongoing U.S. federal budget issues, there is no commitment from Customs and Border Protection to lease, equip or staff additional facilities. Without that commitment, a new EIS for an expanded plaza is pointless. It would be reckless to spend millions of dollars expanding facilities only to look at closed inspection lanes. On a related note, the duty free store has never asked to move its facilities. The only reason for doing so would be to create the space necessary for additional customs booths.
• The authority does not have the power of eminent domain and it does not own city streets or the long-vacant Episcopal Church Home; properties both necessary in any plaza expansion scenario.
In 2011, the authority developed a variety of concepts that were shared with agencies and elected officials to demonstrate that improvement options were available offering less neighborhood impacts at a fraction of the cost. Accordingly, the EIS was terminated by the Federal Highway Administration. The authority board then approved a $50 million capital budget for several self-funded renovation projects to improve the functionality of the existing plaza. For these reasons, the authority has not approved any plaza expansion plans.
Since 9/11, car crossings have declined 28 percent and trucks 5 percent, yet congestion and delays continue. There are two ways to alleviate this: expand the plaza and install additional booths, or reduce the customs inspection time for vehicles. Given the challenges of plaza expansion, the focus is on renovations and increasing enrollment in NEXUS and enhanced drivers licenses and working with Customs and Border Protection to streamline commercial processing procedures.
Ron Rienas is general manager of the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority.