The "why" of the story is unclear, but the "what" is distressing.
The growth in the value of imports and exports between the United States and Canada in the 12 years following the 1995 North American Free Trade Agreement grew by about 40 percent at the border near Vancouver and 25 percent at Detroit, while dropping slightly at the four bridges in the Buffalo-Niagara region.
In other words, the other major border crossings are growing their free trade commerce while ours is stagnant. Great.
The folks who put the report together, the Border Policy Research Institute and the University at Buffalo Regional Institute, don't provide a lot of reasons for WNY's inability to cash in on free trade to the degree others have. But another study by the Border Policy Institute sheds some light.
In a nutshell, the traffic jams known as the Peace Bridge and Queenston-Lewiston Bridge are choking commerce.
The institute, in its Winter 2009 Policy Brief, notes that cross-border trade dropped off after the 9-11 attacks. U.S. exports to Canada largely recovered by 2005, but not so with imports heading into the U.S. The reason, according to the report: "The increased cost of cross-border trade, likely associated with the higher cost of security compliance, is thought to be the problem."
Congestion seems to have something to do with it, as well
The report notes that 44 percent of the shipments entering the U.S. at Detroit use FAST lanes, designed to speed clearance. Here, that rate is 23 percent, or about half. Little wonder the Motor City's free trade business is growing while ours is treading water, why it's doing nearly double the volume we are.
The report also looks at automobile traffic. Our region represents the busiest crossing, an average of 16,509 cars per day, or one-fifth of the total traffic between the two nations. But our region, along with Detroit-Windsor; Blaine, Washington (south of Vancouver), and Port Huron, Michigan, all have seen their auto traffic fail to recover to the degree it has at other, less-traveled border crossings.
"It seems likely that discretionary travel was disproportionately impacted by either the harsher nature of the post 9-11 inspection process or by the congestion resulting from the new processes," the report said.
This rings true to anyone who has ever sat in a long line of traffic Peace Bridge. I know I make the crossing less frequently than I used to because I don't want to deal with the traffic.
All this hurts the WNY economy.
It means fewer Canadians coming here to shop and otherwise spend money. It also partly explains why our import-export trade isn't growing like it is at the other major border crossings.
This is a big deal because our border location is a strategic advantage that we're squandering.
What to do about it?
Well, the Obama administration needs to clean up the mess Dubya and Co. made of border inspections. Doing what needs doing with the Peace Bridge and Queenston-Lewiston Bridge is another piece of the puzzle.
PS: On Monday I said I'd follow up my post on Ontario going green with local reaction today. That's going to have to wait a few days, as I'm tied up with negotiations on behalf of my union dealing with proposed layoffs here at the paper. I hope to get to the local reaction to what Ontario is doing by the end of the week. It's kind of involved and will take more time than I presently have to piece together.