If you thought the lines were long at the area’s border bridges this summer, you’re right. In some cases, you may have waited almost three hours.
And if you were headed into the United States, your delays probably were more frequent – and longer.
The Buffalo News analyzed data from the Peace Bridge and the three Niagara County spans for the first weekend of August – Civic Holiday weekend in Canada. And if that time frame is any indication, it offers a telling glimpse of what to expect on the bridges this Labor Day weekend.
Key findings of The News analysis include:
• Expect delays on Friday at all bridges in both directions, especially from 10 a.m. until 7 p.m.
• At the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge, drivers can expect delays Friday through Monday, especially U.S.-bound traffic from morning to evening. The longest delays of all bridges typically occur at Lewiston-Queenston.
• Most Rainbow Bridge delays occur Canada-bound at the weekend’s start, except for U.S.-bound on Saturday. And the Saturday delays often stretch over an hour.
• At the Peace Bridge, expect delays in both directions during daylight hours Friday and early Saturday, while long waits are over by early afternoon Saturday.
Summertime snarls between the United States and Canada are nothing new, but Peace Bridge Authority General Manager Ron Rienas described this month’s tie-ups as “horrible.”
“Up until Aug. 1, we seemed to be running pretty well,” Rienas said. “But it’s been terrible the last three weeks. Really terrible. Horrible.”
At the Lewiston-Queenston, Whirlpool Rapids and Rainbow bridges, General Manager Lew Holloway of the Niagara Falls Bridge Commission said the situation is not much better, even with overall traffic down almost 7 percent this year.
“Every summer is frustrating from a traffic point of view,” he said, “but this one for whatever reason seems to be a little more challenging.”
The delays are occurring even though Peace Bridge Authority officials point to annual car volumes below those of 50 years ago, and truck volumes 13 percent lower than the peak in 1999.
Officials from both bridge operations say inadequate staffing at inspection booths or longer processing times are causing most of the problems. They also say delays into Canada result from the Canada Border Services Agency’s failure to open enough inspection lanes during peak commuting hours. That, in turn, snarls traffic throughout Buffalo’s West Side, frustrating commuters and neighbors alike.
In defense, the Canada Border Services Agency insists it makes every effort to forecast traffic patterns and volumes and to schedule officers accordingly to minimize processing times.
Canadian officials routinely “take all necessary steps required to help reduce delays, including increasing resources and additional overtime,” said Diana Scott, communications officer, adding that additional personnel have been assigned in 2014.
But the sheer volume of summer traffic, along with unexpected traffic surges and enforcement actions, often make delays unavoidable, she said.
“Despite the best efforts of our ports, traffic volumes at times will elevate due to variables that are out of our control,” she said.
On the U.S. side, Customs officials say it is “absolutely incorrect” that inspections booths are not adequately staffed. They corroborate Rienas’ contention that U.S. officials are coping as best they can.
“Our busiest time is August, so we ensure those booths are open,” said Richard Misztal, spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection. “I can guarantee that when we have delays such as those, all lanes are open.”
Bernie Cryan, a Buffalo insurance executive who commutes to downtown daily from his Crescent Beach, Ont., summer home, knows just how exasperating the Peace Bridge can be. As he sat in a long line into the United States a few mornings ago, his plan to grab a pre-work haircut got sidetracked by a 45-minute effort to reach the Buffalo inspection booths.
“On the American side, they usually have 17 lanes open,” he said. “I know, I have time to count them because I sit there for half an hour. On the Canadian side, not so many are open. They might have two, three or four closed.”
Cryan said it took 90 minutes to cross back to Fort Erie, Ont., one day last week when Canada-bound traffic backed all the way to Holy Angels Catholic Church on Porter Avenue.
“Sometimes it’s worse going into the States,” he said. “It can be backed up all the way to the duty-free store.
“No haircut today,” he added.
Rienas of the Peace Bridge Authority said because the Canada Border Services Agency routinely fails to open enough inspection booths, long delays for traffic between Buffalo and Fort Erie worsened this summer.
“That’s a direct result of CBSA not having enough booths open,” he said. “Not even close.”
Rienas said traffic entering the United States also gets jammed, especially in August. But he said U.S. Customs and Border Protection handles the peak conditions as best they can, explaining Buffalo-bound delays most often stem from more questions and more requests to pop the trunk than by unstaffed inspection booths.
On average, it takes 12 seconds longer for a vehicle to clear inspection booths (89 seconds) now than in 2009 on the U.S. side, according to Peace Bridge statistics. But Rienas emphasized the booths are staffed, calling it a “credit to U.S. Customs.”
“They’ve had all lanes open when traffic conditions warrant,” he said. “The same cannot be said for CBSA.”
Still, Rienas noted that U.S. authorities take longer to process trucks than their Canadian counterparts.
“There is much room for improvement on the commercial side for entering the U.S.,” he said.
And if U.S. inspectors confront an unexpected traffic surge when booths are not fully staffed, it then takes hours for snarls to ease after full strength returns.
“If they don’t have the booths open earlier, it takes a lot longer to clear up,” he said.
Holloway of the Niagara bridges agrees that the more severe problems center around “serious staffing challenges over the last two or three years” at Canadian inspection operations.
“Generally speaking, local management is doing everything it can,” he said. “But you can’t keep lanes open without sufficient staffing. Even with overtime, sometimes there aren’t enough people.
“This time of year, it’s always busy,” he added. “But it’s really frustrating when only five of 13 lanes are open. There’s no question there have been numerous examples of traffic backed up because not all lanes are open.”
Some Canada-bound snarls also result from U.S. actions even before traffic leaves New York. Holloway of the Niagara bridges said recent problems stem from U.S. agents conducting outbound checks on vehicles bound for Canada.
“I know they have a job to do, but if it’s managed properly, they can do that job and not cause such a huge backup,” he said. “We’ve been in communication with CBP on that.”
He suggested that travelers can avoid delays by checking the bridge website (niagarafallsbridges.com) and Twitter (@NiagaraBridges) updates before crossing the bridges, and to have proper identification ready at the border. He also suggested emptying the trunks of anything non-essential in case of inspection scrutiny at the border, turning off all radios and cellphones at inspection booths, and most of all – consider enrolling in the Nexus quick inspection process.
“There is no question that Nexus usage translates into time savings and more reliability at the border, especially at the (Nexus-only) Whirlpool bridge,” Holloway said.
For U.S.-bound traffic at the Peace Bridge, Rienas said long lines stretching up the Queen Elizabeth Way to Thompson Road have occurred in recent days.
And despite the hoopla of a July news conference in Fort Erie when Canadian officials opened an additional Nexus lane to provide quick inspection for pre-approved travelers entering Canada, Reinas said both express ports of entry are not always open.
“They need to know to have two Nexus lanes open,” he said, especially during summer peak hours when many residents of lakeside cottages in Ontario commute to jobs in downtown Buffalo.
“We’ve received lots of calls from people living in the cottages on Lake Erie,” he said. “They get mad, and rightfully so.”
The backups also have caused havoc on the New York side. Rienas explained that Canada-bound traffic was blocked from the northbound Niagara Thruway to the bridge four times last week to prevent backups extending toward downtown Buffalo.
West Side residents
In turn, diverting cars and trucks into the Front Park neighborhood hardly sits well with West Side residents.
Kathleen Mecca, president of the Niagara Gateway Columbus Park Association, has complained to the Peace Bridge Authority that a flood of traffic along city streets endangers children who frequently walk to LaSalle Park, Front Park and waterfront ice cream stands.
“Both sides of Niagara Street, Porter Avenue and Baird Avenue become complete bumper-to-bumper gridlock,” she said. “Then they’re all going down the wrong direction on the side streets, and if you live on Busti, Vermont or Rhode Island, you literally can’t get out of your driveway.”
Mecca also blames Canadian Customs, just as she did during similar traffic jams in 2013. She wants the authority to work with both inspection agencies to address the situation.
Robert D. Gioia, president of the John R. Oishei Foundation, has experienced a slew of traffic jams over the past few days, even snapping a photo showing several closed U.S. inspection lanes.
“I’d like to know where all the new agents are,” he said, referring to recent plans touted by Sen. Charles E. Schumer to bolster inspection staffing at the bridge. He said the situation leads to much more than frustration because it affects the entire local economy.
“It’s a cultural challenge for this community to respect border security,” he said, “but this is an embarrassment for this dual-country economy. If we don’t solve this regionally, I feel sorry for small business here.”