Wait times at Canada's second-busiest border crossing can stretch to hours, according to mayors and bridge authorities in Ontario's Niagara Region who are pleading with Ottawa to boost staffing levels to ease the congestion, especially as the busy Peace Bridge prepares to reduce its operating lanes next month.
The Peace Bridge between Fort Erie, Ont., and Buffalo is one of three border crossings in the Niagara Region where wait times skyrocketed this summer. Some travellers waited for more than two hours to cross the Peace, Rainbow and Lewiston-Queenston Bridges while processing booths sat empty, bridge authorities said. The long wait times are a far cry from the Canada Border Services Agency's (CBSA) service standard: 10 minutes from Monday to Thursday, and 20 minutes on Friday, Saturday, Sunday and holidays.
"The fact is people can wait for hours – plural – in line to cross the bridge. These are people that are hungry, they have to go to the bathroom, they've got screaming kids and they just want to get in," said Jim Diodati, mayor of Niagara Falls, Ont. "We need them [the federal government] to hire more border guards. That's all there is to it."
At the Rainbow Bridge, for instance, the average wait time on a weekend during the months of June, July and August jumped from about 4-1/2 minutes in 2015 to more than 21 minutes in 2016 – an increase of 355 per cent – according to the data collected by the Niagara Falls Bridge Commission. However, Mr. Diodati says the wait-time averages don't accurately reflect the hours-long delays some travellers experience coming into Canada, as they also account for overnight periods when delays are next to none.
The concerns over border wait times in the Niagara Region come as the Liberal government works to improve the flow of travellers and trade at the Canada-U.S. border. During Justin Trudeau's first trip as prime minister to Washington in March, Canada and the U.S. agreed to a number of border pacts aimed at loosening barriers at the border. Ron Rienas, general manager of the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority, said these agreements are meaningless if the CBSA can't manage wait times at the border as it is.
"It's frustrating for us to see the government talk about the importance of the border and then not see it translated into what actually happens on the ground," he said.
Mr. Rienas said a rule requiring border officers to be certified to carry a gun has made it particularly difficult for the CBSA to properly staff processing booths at the border. The arming initiative was introduced by the previous Conservative government in 2006 and implemented over the past decade. He said the CBSA normally hires seasonal workers, including students, to backfill for border officers on vacation during the summer, but had a hard time doing so this year because the temporary workers weren't certified to carry arms.
Jean-Pierre Fortin, national president of the Customs and Immigration Union, said that while he agrees the arming initiative had some impact on wait times this year, a shortage of border officials was the most significant contributor to the problem. He said the staffing problems were especially bad in 2016.
In an Aug. 5 letter to Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, who oversees the CBSA, Niagara-area mayors on both sides of the border asked the government to immediately address the situation by hiring more CBSA officers to work at the bridges.
"We implore you and the federal government to act immediately to allocate the necessary human resources to the international bridges along the Niagara River to ensure the safe and timely movement of people and goods across our border," the letter read. "This is a situation that can no longer be ignored and one that our communities should no longer be expected to endure."
Scott Bardsley, a spokesman for Mr. Goodale, said that while the CBSA recognizes the importance of border wait times and makes every effort to adjust staffing levels during peak travel periods, delays may occur due to variables that are out of the agency's control. He also said the CBSA Southern Ontario Region enforced its "peak period action plan" to identify service pressures related to increased volumes from Victoria Day to Labour Day this year.
The situation is becoming increasingly worrisome as the Peace Bridge prepares to reduce from three lanes to two in November for repairs. Mr. Bardsley said the CBSA is aware of the Peace Bridge lane closure and it will be staffing accordingly.
In the longer term, there's concern about how this year's delays could deter Americans from visiting Canada next summer for its 150th anniversary.
"People who have to sit there for two hours waiting to get across the bridge, it's going to give them a negative feeling about making a return visit," said Wayne Thomson, chairman of Niagara Falls Tourism.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said there is a new rule requiring border officers to be certified to carry a gun. In fact, that was introduced by the previous Conservative government in 2006 and implemented over the past decade. This article has been corrected.