Decline in cross border traffic “very significant”

It might not seem like it if you’re stuck waiting to cross the border to or from Canada this summer, but over the past two decades, the number of people making the trip has plummeted. 

Car traffic at the Peace Bridge, which connects Buffalo and Fort Erie, dropped 40 percent between 2000 and 2017.

Ron Rienas, general manager of the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority, which oversees the Peace Bridge, called the decline “very significant,” adding, “it’s very unusual to have that degree of decline on a transportation network.”

It’s not just the Peace Bridge. The Rainbow, Whirlpool and Lewiston-Queenston bridges have seen a 35 percent decrease in traffic. In fact, total border crossings at the 11 bridges connecting Ontario and the U.S. fell by an average of 35 percent between 2000 and 2017.

The main reason for the drop off in traffic: the increased security restrictions introduced after 9/11. A journey that could once be made without a government-issued photo ID now requires a passport or an enhanced driver’s license, as well as more thorough screening.

“That has really slowed things down and really deterred a lot of traffic,” said Kenneth Bieger, general manager of the Niagara Falls Bridge Commission, which manages the three bridges linking Niagara County and Ontario. “There are a lot of people right now that just don’t want to deal with the hassle.”

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Tourism, shopping, and trade all tie Western New York and Ontario together. The stronger those ties, the better for economies on both sides of the border, experts say.

The decline in cross-border traffic is “definitely a trend and it’s definitely not good,” said Patrick Whalen, director of the Niagara Global Tourism Institute.

The exchange rate also plays a role: Canadians are more likely to come to the U.S. to shop when a stronger Canadian dollar maximizes their purchasing power here. But a weak Canadian dollar discourages them from doing so. The growth of online shopping and the dearth, in recent years, of new tourist attractions on either side have also dampened travelers’ enthusiasm.

Truck traffic is also down, although the decline hasn’t been as steep – both the Peace Bridge and the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge saw a decrease of about 20 percent between 2000 and 2017. (The Rainbow and Whirlpool bridges do not accommodate trucks.)

Fewer crossings means less income for the bridge authorities, which both rely primarily on toll revenues to cover operating and maintenance costs.

If the decline in traffic at the Peace Bridge continues, Rienas said, “we would have to increase our tolls.” That still wouldn’t be an easy fix: the higher the toll, the more it risks becoming another disincentive for people to cross the border, creating a vicious cycle.  

Bieger, of the Niagara Falls Bridge Commission, is optimistic that traffic will return. Southern Ontario’s rapidly increasing population will help – the region is projected to grow by almost 50 percent by 2041 – along with new technologies like facial recognition that could speed up customs checks, he said.

“In the long run, I’m really not overly concerned,” Bieger said. “We’re a corridor between Toronto and the United States. We may not get back to pre-9/11 levels, but I think we’ll see auto traffic steadily improve over the next 20 years.”

At the Peace Bridge, Rienas said, the lower levels of traffic are here to stay. 

“I don’t think we’re going to get back up to the levels that we saw 20 years ago, at least not for a long time,” he said, anticipating only a “slight” increase over the next two decades.

That means a one-time plan to add a second span to the bridge is likely dead, although a $100 million rehabilitation of the existing bridge is currently underway, and improvements to the plaza on the U.S. side are under consideration.  

“Certainly from a traffic volume perspective, it would be very difficult to justify building another bridge,” Rienas said.