There’s a new “normal” at the U.S.-Canadian border. Crossings now require documents the majority of Americans don’t have – and patience. Wait times have increased, and fewer are willing to endure the process.
Not surprisingly, business and tourism have decreased as a result, thanks to increased security and scrutiny at western New York’s four bridges.
In the decade since September 11, truck traffic at the Peace Bridge is down 10 percent. Car traffic has fallen 27 percent.
“It’s just a bridge”
“Nobody expected what happened to happen. We were kind of flying by the seat of our pants. You just took it one day at a time,” says Joe Bertie, vice president at Speed Global Services.
Most inspections find nothing suspect, but there’s always the possibility a trailer contains something – or someone – illegal. Increased security has slowed shipments, and dissuaded some companies from operating in western New York, according to Bertie.
“Get outside of a border city and they think shipping to Canada is very difficult. We’re trying to spread the word throughout that it’s just a bridge,” Bertie says.
“Almost anything was sufficient”
“We’ve had traffic declining but congestion going up,” says Ron Reinas, general manager of the Peace Bridge Authority.
Lines of vehicles regularly back up, creating 30-45 minute or longer delays.
Before 9/11, the border didn’t really exist, Reinas says. Locals crossed for lunch or shopping.
“If you asked for documentation almost anything sufficed. It could be library card, gym card, almost anything ... those days are gone,” Reinas says.
Now people must have an “enhanced” driver’s license or a passport, which more than two-thirds of Americans don’t own, according to the State Department. Cargo-carrying trucks need extensive documentation and even those doesn’t guarantee a swift crossing. The quizzes given to drivers by border guards sometimes turns bridges turn into parking lots, Reinas says.
All of this adds to an atmosphere of frustration, fear and uncertainty.
“A step backwards”
“People that live here half the time don’t even know what’s going on,” says Arlene White.
White has driven across the border every day for years, in her role as executive director of the Binational Alliance. The organization recently studied behavior at the border since 9/11 and found a more than 70 percent drop-off in tourism-related trips.
But White says the data shows that the issues at the border are more a matter of perception, than reality.
“There are really not big problems at the border,” she says. “Ninety-five to 98 percent of the time there are no delays. You can actually pinpoint through holidays, time of the day, events that are going on.”
But how do officials increase tourism while preventing terrorism? Plans for a new larger bridge in Buffalo were recently shelved. Instead, a small expansion to the U.S. plaza should ease congestion a bit.
Still, University at Buffalo Canadian Studies Professor Munroe Eagles says current levels of security were an overreaction to 9/11 and will continue to keep traditional levels of commerce at bay.
“This strikes me as a step backwards. What’s the net benefit? Are we that much safer?” Eagles asks. “The real fault lies in the idea that borders are walls that can hermetically seal off the country from all threat.”
Money would better be spent protecting the thousands of miles of unguarded border between the US and Canada, Eagles argues.
“If I were a terrorist wanting to do harm to the United States,” Eagles says, “about the last thing I’d do is try to cross at the Peace Bridge or Queenston Lewiston [Bridge].”
But Munroe admits, if he were a border guard, he wouldn’t want to be the person that allowed a terrorist or a weapon to cross into the country.