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WASHINGTON – Reps. Brian Higgins and Chris Collins Friday turned up the heat on U.S. Customs and Border Protection in their attempt to get the agency to address long wait times not only at the Peace Bridge, but also at Niagara County’s bridges.

A week after the two lawmakers met with agency officials in Washington to voice their concerns – and a day after Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., detailed a near-doubling of average wait times at the Peace Bridge – Higgins, D-Buffalo, released statistics showing long wait times as well at the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge. The waits weren’t as long at the Rainbow Bridge, but they grew this year nevertheless.

Reviewing all that data, Higgins and Collins, R-Clarence, took turns stressing that any such delays are hurting the Western New York economy.

“Western New York’s economy relies on the ease and accessibility of moving people and goods across the border,” Higgins said. “If congestion at the Peace Bridge is impeding cross-border commerce, this is a problem that needs to be addressed immediately.”

Collins agreed, saying: “Unreasonably long wait times and delays at the Peace Bridge are more than just an inconvenience to travelers, they are a direct hit to our local economy.”

While the average passenger wait time nearly doubled – to 5.9 minutes – at the Peace Bridge, the average wait time at the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge increased one minute – from 7.3 minutes in fiscal 2012 to 8.3 minutes a year later. Meanwhile, the average passenger delay at the Rainbow Bridge in Niagara Falls increased from 2.9 minutes in fiscal 2012 to 4 minutes in fiscal 2013.

Peak-time waits are far longer. At the Peace Bridge, the average peak-time wait increased from 17.9 to 26.4 minutes, while at the Rainbow Bridge, peak-time waits increased from 18.5 minutes to 23.2 minutes.

At the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge, however, the average peak-time wait fell from 35.4 minutes to 34 minutes between 2012 and 2013, though it remained the longest average wait time at any of the local bridges.

The lawmakers addressed those delays in a letter Thursday to Thomas Winkowski, acting commissioner of the customs agency.

They asked Winkowski to tell them how many additional officers the agency would need at the Peace Bridge to cut wait times in half. In addition, they asked the agency about staffing at the other bridges linking the Buffalo Niagara region to Canada.

“We believe that until we adequately address the issue of staffing, wait times will continue to increase,” the lawmakers wrote.

In the letter, Higgins and Collins noted that:

• $30 billion in trade flows over the Western New York-Southern Ontario border every year.

• Some 3,000 Canadian students study in the Buffalo Niagara region.

• Thirty-eight percent of the passengers at Buffalo Niagara International Airport are Canadian.

• Twenty percent of the Buffalo Bills season ticket holders, and 22 percent of Buffalo Sabres season ticket holders, come from Canada.

In response to questions about the delays, Customs and Border Protection spokesperson Shelbe Benson-Fuller issued this statement: “CBP works closely with local authorities to support requests for new or enhanced services, and continuously works to identify ways to support growing volumes of trade and travel, and improve the traveler experience while maintaining the highest security standards.”

Options for reducing delays include automating processes, going paperless, employing mobile technology and self-service kiosks, and exploring public-private partnerships, Benson-Fuller added.

email: jzremski@buffnews.com