BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) It’s been twenty years since a very public debate about building a new Peace Bridge. In the end, a new bridge was never built, and as it turns out, the projections of higher truck traffic actually went in reverse.
In March of 1999, a group of young professionals called The New Millennium Group launched a petition drive of 2,000 signatures pushing for a new signature bridge to Canada. At the time, momentum had been building toward a Twin Span to improve the Peace Bridge. Years of debate would follow. The Building Trades got involved, but a new bridge never was built.
“You know the Peace Bridge became emblematic of a feeling that Buffalo couldn’t get anything done when actually I think the contrary was true,” said Jeff Belt, former president of the New Millennium Group, and current owner of an Olean company called Solepoxy.
Belt still believes that a dramatic international gateway would’ve been transformational to the West Side. “All of the investment that your seeing on Niagara Street would be multiplied by ten in my view.”
But Peace Bridge Authority General Manager Ron Rienas doesn’t see it that way. “In retrospect, it was good that we did not build the bridge.”
Rienas says current tolls would have to be triple what they are now to pay for it, and here’s why. The debate began 20 years ago because truck traffic had doubled in light of free trade agreements. The trends were moving toward even more traffic in the years to come, but in realty, overall traffic has declined at all U.S.-Canada bridges by 36% since 2000.
Vehicle traffic dropped by 38% on the Peace Bridge in the past 20 years for a few reasons;
-after the 9-11 attacks, the rules about travel documents discouraged some travelers from going over the border.
-the growth of Online shopping became easier than Cross-border shopping
-those who play the slots didn’t have to go to Ontario anymore, as casinos sprouted up here in Western New York.
Instead of building a new bridge which would now cost about a Billion dollars, Peace Bridge officials spent about a quarter Billion dollars rehabbing the decks and widening the approaches on both sides. It’s at the point now where 95% of the time there is no delay of longer than ten minutes.
“We can actually flex some of the commercials booths so we have eight commercial booths, six of those eight can be used for car lanes, so we can actually have more car lanes coming into the US than into Canada and in peak times, Customs and Border Patrol has done an excellent job in staffing all of those lanes,” said Rienas.
And even though we’re dealing with a bridge that was designed and built in 1926, it’s taken on a whole new look simply by lighting it up at night. Structurally, it’s good for another 75 years.
But both sides of the debate agree that the Peace Bridge could still benefit from a larger customs plaza on the US side. “It’s not really aesthetically appealing coming into the US,” said Rienas.
Belt feels it was still a turning point for the city. “We didn’t win the battle of the Peace Bridge. We fought hard, I think we fought fair, we didn’t win, but I think we accomplished our mission. I think we enabled the little people and visionaries to become part of the conversation and since then, Canalside, the Preservation Coalition turned Canalside around. Even if then we had the optimism in Buffalo that we have today, I think we would’ve gotten it done.”
The following facts were supplied by the Peace Bridge Authority:
Peace Bridge Capacity Expansion
- Environmental Impact Statement process began in 2000 after earlier process terminated by a court decision.
- Expansion was planned to accommodate projected traffic growth, especially commercial traffic related to the original Canada-US Free trade agreement in 1987 and then NAFTA in 1994, which doubled truck traffic between 1987 and 2000
- Environmental process terminated in late 2011 due to costs and no funding commitment for the U.S. plaza from the U.S. government and declining traffic.
- Estimated cost in 2010 was $700 million (equivalent cost in 2020 would be $1.1 billion)
- Environmental Impact Statement documents assumed there would be 2.1 million more vehicle crossing the bridge annually at this time than what is actually occurring and that car and truck tolls would be approximately double what is currently charged.
Peace Bridge Projects Since 2000
- Added 4 commercial dual use booths in U.S. and 1 commercial booth in Canada.
- Removed tolls and PBA administration from U.S. plaza and relocated to Canada
- Relocated Duty Free
- Relocated Customs commercial x-ray inspection and eliminated exit from plaza through Front Park
- Relocated Canada Customs primary inspection booths as far away from bridge as possible thereby allowing 2 bridge lanes to be dedicated U.S. bound for most of the time.
- Widened approaches in both Canada and the U.S. to facilitate easier access to inspection lanes.
- Expanded and renovated the U.S Customs commercial building to minimize the amount of time trucks spend in secondary inspection.
- Completed bridge rehabilitation and are currently painting bridge.
- Total investment: approximately $225 million.
- Car tolls increased by rate of inflation, truck tolls increased by half the rate of inflation. Car tolls remain the lowest of all border crossings at $3.75 round trip. Had the capacity expansion proceeded and given the traffic declines, tolls would have tripled.
- Overall traffic has declined at all Canada – U.S. bridges by 36% since 2000. (see attached)
- Peace Bridge total traffic has declined by 38%. Cars have declined by 41% and trucks have declined by 25%. (see attached)
Reasons for traffic decline
- 9/11 attack and travel document requirement (only 40% of Americans and 60% of Canadians have passports)
- Border avoidance; adverse publicity
- E-commerce and on-line shopping
- Currency exchange rate; relatively low Canadian dollar
- Population decline in WNY; population has increased in southern Ontario
- Alternates in both countries (casinos, outlet shopping, low cost Hamilton Airport)
- Bilateral trade between Canada and the U.S., in real terms, has been stagnant since 2000. U.S trade with China increased 290%; with Mexico by 70%.
- U.S. plaza remains a challenge and is not as functional and efficient as it should be. It is aesthetically unappealing
- Promotion and Expansion of the NEXUS and FAST programs
- Relocation of some U.S. Customs technology to Canada to reduce U.S. plaza requirements and processing time at U.S. primary expansion lanes.
- Continued commitment by Canada and U.S. Customs to staff the optimum number of inspection booths.
George Richert is an award-winning reporter who first joined the News 4 team in 1998, later returning in 2018. See more of his work here.