U.S. side of bridge gets new customs booths
Monica Wolfson, The Windsor Star
Published: Thursday, June 05, 2008
Seven new customs booths on the U.S. side of the Ambassador Bridge should make crossing from Canada easier this summer than last year, when border delays were the worst since 9-11, border officials say.

Last year, wait times into the U.S. in the Detroit area averaged 24 minutes.

The Ambassador Bridge will open seven new car custom inspection booths on the U.S. side starting June 15, a bridge official said. The booths will be open during peak travel times, including on weekends.

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Font:****"We see fewer backups Monday through Friday because that's generally when the bulk of our commuter customers are crossing," said Skip McMahon, spokesman for the Ambassador Bridge. "They know what to do and not to do. On the weekends that's when we see day trippers. They are not quite as well prepared, so customs officers take longer. The traffic volumes are down, but the time frames are longer."

Unlike the truck custom booths that were recently built on the Canadian side but never staffed by Canadian border guards, a U.S. official said the booths will be occupied, but he wasn't sure on the timeline.

"Once the booths are operational, we'll staff them as needed," said Ricardo Scheller, assistant director for border security for U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

The Detroit-Windsor Tunnel is landlocked and can't really expand its U.S. customs plaza.

"Starting in July, I've been assured by U.S. Customs this summer will be significantly different from last summer in terms of delays," said Neil Belinski, president of the Detroit Windsor Tunnel LLC. "I can't go into details."

He did say there will be more automated toll booths that accept credit cards, expanded Nexus lanes and use of pass cards.

"We look at the use of technology to better use the space to accommodate safety and safely move traffic," Belinski said.

Extensive delays into the U.S. -- last year the wait was more than an hour, 50 to 70 per cent of the time -- have already been minimized at the Blue Water Bridge, said spokesman Stan Korosec.

"We've met with U.S. Customs four times in the last several months," Korosec said. "They looked at how they process a vehicle. The time it's stopped. Staffing was a concern we had that they needed to open all the lanes. On the recent holiday weekend we noticed a big difference in how our traffic was moving into the U.S."

The Blue Water Bridge also heavily promoted the Nexus program that allows quick automated passage for commuters. It has grown to 15,000 users -- up from 8,000 last summer.

"We handed out flyers and really promoted the heck out of it," Korosec said.

There's also a "number of stuff going on behind the scenes," at U.S. Customs, Scheller said.

Korosec said he hopes the government doesn't have to put portable toilets along Highway 402 as they did last summer to accommodate motorists stuck waiting to cross the bridge.

"We are working with our border partners to ensure (transit) of legal trade and travel," Scheller said.

The Red Bull Air Race on Sunday was a special event that shouldn't be used to judge efforts to have a smooth border transition, officials said. U.S. tourists waited hours to return home.

"There were 150,000-plus U.S. people who went to the Canadian side (to view the race)," Scheller, from U.S. Customs, said. "Wait times were 65 minutes on average. We were prepared for that."

Later this year the Ambassador Bridge will also build four more truck customs booths in the U.S. plaza and is in discussions with U.S. Customs to create special lanes for single-occupant vehicles and other lanes for high occupancy vehicles.

"It should give Customs some comfort that we've done a bit to separate the vehicles before they get to the booths," McMahon said.

Travellers can also use credit cards at the automated toll booths in addition to commuter cards.

While the U.S. works on improving its border wait times, Korosec said he is also concerned about delays getting into Canada.

"I'm concerned with Canada Border Services staffing on the weekends," Korosec said of the Blue Water Bridge situation. "On Memorial Day weekend, there were one- to two-hour delays getting into Canada. Not all the booths were open. So far, after all the complaining we did about last year getting into the U.S., I'd hate to experience that coming into Canada this summer."

Danny Yen, a spokesman for the Canada Border Services Agency, said the government recognizes the need for efficient trade and tourism.

"We respond to travel fluctuations," Yen said. "When appropriate, the CBSA assigns additional staff and resources due to increased volumes."

But delays could be the result of behind-the-scene events, Yen said.

"Border security is our number one priority," Yen said. "There could be many things going on at any given time -- an arrest or seizure. There could be a delay behind the scenes. If they had eight booths open and then there were down to five, there is probably a reason for that."

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