WASHINGTON – Passenger vehicles on the Canadian side of the Peace Bridge have, on average, waited almost twice as long to cross into the United States this year compared with 2012, according to statistics compiled by U.S. Customs and Border Protection and released Thursday by Sen. Charles E. Schumer.
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, that wait was a mere 3.1 minutes.
And the wait has been far worse during peak times, when the average passenger vehicle has encountered a 26.4-minute wait, up from 17.9 minutes in fiscal 2012.
Seeing those numbers, Schumer – a New York Democrat who has been fighting to increase the number of border agents at the bridge – was enraged.
“These backups cause headaches and are a drag on the economy, and we need more agents ushering travelers, sports fans, shoppers and commercial vehicles into Western New York, not less,” he said.
Customs and Border Protection acknowledged the delays – and the short staffing that Schumer and Peace Bridge General Manager Ron Rienas both said appeared to be at the root of the problem.
A spokesman for the CBP noted traffic is likely to grow at the same pace in coming years, and said President Obama’s 2014 budget included a request for 3,811 additional CBP officers.
The delays don’t just affect passenger vehicles, either. The statistics show trucks encountering similar delays.
And it all adds up to a big problem for Buffalo-area businesses, said Dottie Gallagher-Cohen, president of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership.
Local malls and the Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino are reporting a decrease in their numbers of Canadian customers, she said, adding: “We think the bridge has a lot to do with it.”
Not surprisingly, overall Peace Bridge traffic into Buffalo is down, too, “which means that the problem is even worse than it looks,” she added.
While the border agency has been hesitant to discuss the reasons for the problem, Gallagher-Cohen said officials make it seem like they’re just doing the necessary and time-consuming inspections that they need to do on anyone entering the United States.
“When I get any kind of an explanation, it’s, ‘We’re not going to mess with national security,’” she said.
But both Schumer and Rienas said the problem is obvious – not enough agents at the border, for some reason.
Worse yet, the delays are going in both directions, he added.“Entering Canada, you have significant delays for the same reason,” Rienas said.
Schumer has been pressuring Customs and Border Protection to fix the situation entering the U.S.
Improvements at the Peace Bridge plaza and the move of many U.S. Customs operations to the U.S. side – which will happen under a much-touted demonstration project – won’t do that much good if there aren’t enough agents to staff the booths, he said.
Now that Congress has passed a budget deal, he will be able to fight for more funding for more agents through the congressional appropriations process – something that was much harder to do when Congress was putting together last-minute, slapdash spending bills in recent years.
And the statistics, Schumer said, offer the best argument yet that more agents are needed.
“This really gives us ammunition in our fight to get more people on the border across the Niagara Frontier,” Schumer said. “We’re short of people.”