WASHINGTON – The long lines of traffic at the Peace Bridge should grow shorter later this year thanks to a federal spending deal that also boosts funding for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, the Great Lakes and other initiatives that are important to Buffalo.
Local members of Congress from both parties expressed support for the emerging deal Tuesday, saying it undoes the most draconian of the “sequestration” cuts that reduced federal spending across the board nearly a year ago.
Most notably, the bill boosts funding for Customs and Border Protection – the agency that manages border crossings – by $220 million through the rest of the 2014 fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. Some $165.7 million of that money will be devoted to hiring and training 2,000 new border agents.
Combined with Homeland Security Secretary Jeh C. Johnson’s commitment last week to add agents at the Peace Bridge if money becomes available, the spending deal means that the worst will soon be over for people crossing into Buffalo from Canada, according to Sen. Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat, who prodded Johnson into agreeing to add agents to the Buffalo border.
Schumer said the additional funding also will provide a boost to a pilot project in which much of the U.S.-bound cargo at the Peace Bridge will be precleared on the Canadian side.
“This boost in funding, combined with Secretary Johnson’s commitment to send new agents to the Peace Bridge, will speed commerce, grow jobs and ensure that the preclearance pilot moves forward at full steam,” Schumer said.
In addition, the spending bill bars the Department of Homeland Security from imposing a border-crossing fee, which the agency had threatened to impose last year.
“A new border fee would have been a major setback to our efforts to promote cross-border commerce and tourism, and limit New York’s potential for economic growth at one of the worst possible times,” said Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y., who joined other local lawmakers in fighting the proposed fee.
Those lawmakers – including Reps. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, and Chris Collins, R-Clarence – also have been pressing for relief at the Peace Bridge for more than a month.
And the customs agency itself acknowledged the problem at the Peace Bridge, releasing statistics showing that it took an average of 5.9 minutes for passengers to cross the border in the government’s 2013 fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30. In fiscal 2012, the wait was a mere 3.1 minutes.
While the border agency has not detailed the reasons for the increased wait times, local lawmakers have pinned it on lane closures due to inadequate staffing. And Higgins said that lack of staffing likely stems from sequestration, the across-the-board 9 percent spending cut in domestic programs that took effect last March after Congress could not agree on anything better.
“How can it not be that?” Higgins said. “We’re seeing backups and empty booths.”
The infusion of new cash into the border agency is just one of the many changes in the $1.1 trillion spending agreement, which Congress is expected to pass by the end of this week.
The spending bill flushes out the details of a broader budget agreement finalized by Congress last month.
“We’re locking in 92 percent of the sequester savings, but this does it in a better way,” Collins said.
Higgins agreed, saying: “This is much better than it otherwise would have been.”
In particular, it’s better for the 100,000 or so families in Erie County alone who rely on the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program for help in cold winters like this one.
Under the budget deal, LIHEAP will receive $3.4 billion in funding, which is $169 million more than last year.
“This boost in appropriations is good news for New York and good news for the country,” said Schumer, who, along with Gillibrand, pushed for the proposed increase. “It means fewer have to choose between paying for heat and the rent, heat and prescription drugs, or heat and putting food on the table.”
Gillibrand, meanwhile, said she was happy with the spending bill’s funding for the federal Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, as well as its efforts to fight to prevent Asian carp from entering the lakes.
The lakes initiative, which aims to clean up toxic sediments from the Buffalo River and other similar “hot spots,” will receive $300 million in funding, up from $284 million under sequestration.
The Department of the Interior will get $3.5 million to fund its efforts to combat the Asian carp, while the Army Corps of Engineers will get authorization to take emergency measures to stop the invasive fish from entering the lakes ecosystem.
Local waterway-dredging operations could get a boost, too, thanks to a $487 million increase in funding at the Army Corps of Engineers, Higgins said.
Other noteworthy items in the spending deal include:
• A $1 billion increase for funding at the National Institutes of Health. That’s $2.1 billion less than Higgins had been hoping for, but still, the increase could end up benefiting Roswell Park Cancer Institute and other such research institutions.
• A $612 million increase in the Head Start program for pre-schoolers, which suffered cutbacks under sequestration.
• A slight reduction in funding for the Community Development Block Grant program, which has provided tens of millions of dollars in aid to Buffalo and other cities in past years but which has fallen out of favor with both Congress and the Obama administration.
• Steady funding of $64 million for the West Valley Demonstration Project, the nuclear cleanup site in Cattaraugus County.
The spending deal does not touch Social Security or Medicare, which account for much more federal spending than the “discretionary” programs that the bill funds.
Republicans such as Collins and Rep. Tom Reed of Corning warned that growth in that sort of entitlement spending will have to be reined in eventually. But for now, they said they were happy with the spending deal, which staves off another possible government shutdown.
“I’m glad to see us come together on an agreement,” Reed said. “It gets us away from government by crisis and the countdown mentality.”