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Beating the border clock

Is Ogdensburg the fastest crossing between New York State and Canada?

PRESCOTT, Ont. — It is a hurry-up world and the lonely people running the Ogdensburg border crossing think they can offer truckers more speed getting across the St. Lawrence River.

There are three border crossings between Canada and New York State. From east to west they are in Cornwall, Ogdensburg and the Thousand Islands. They process around 2.4 million, 410,000 and two million vehicles a year, respectively.

“We are promoting the fact that we are not a congested bridge. We have the lowest traffic levels of the three crossings,” says John Rishe, director of commercial and industrial development, Ogdensburg Bridge and Port Authority. “The other advantage is that our rates are considerably less. Pre-paid cards give an extra 10% discount, a rebate card is worth as much as 10% and we have also just started taking credit cards and debit cards.”

Since this is a Quebec story, I will restrict my comparison to just the crossings that travellers would use for trips between Quebec and US points west of, say, Interstate 81, that is, Ogdensburg and Alexandria Bay/Thousands Islands.

First, I compared distances and travel times, using Google Maps, between Montreal and Watertown, N.Y. Watertown is 40 kilometres south of the Thousand Islands on Interstate 81. Truckers taking either border crossing pass through Watertown on trips between Quebec and the US west of Interstate 81.

Motoring down the 401 and over the Thousand Islands crossing, it takes three hours and 11 minutes to do the 304-kilometre drive. Via Ogdensburg and Hwy. 37, which parallels the St. Lawrence on the US side before veering south toward Watertown, it takes three hours and 14 minutes and the distance is 286 kms.

Break the trip down a little more: Watertown to Ogdensburg via The Thousand Islands is 118.5 kms and takes one hour and 16 minutes. Watertown to Ogdensburg via Hwy. 37 is 100.3 kms and takes one hour and 10 minutes. An alternate route from Watertown to Ogdensburg, starting with Hwy. 37, then Hwy. 12, and then finishing the run to Ogdensburg on Hwy. 37, is 110.1 kms and takes an hour and 14 minutes.

Strictly by the map and however Google calculates travel times, the difference between the two crossings is trivial. Even those two two-lane roads, Highways 37 and 12, do not seem to be an impediment. Looking at them with Google Street View, Hwy. 37 looks a bit rough, but with paved shoulders. Hwy. 12 looks freshly paved, with generous paved shoulders. The little Google vehicle driver even passed a transport truck on its photo assignment.

Mark Seymour, president and CEO of Prescott, Ont.-based Kriska Transport, offers a carrier-level perspective on the crossings. Kriska does lots of runs out of Quebec. There is no company strategy for using one bridge or the other, Seymour says.

“Our drivers have the option. It makes no difference to us. The fees are about the same. It really depends on what the traffic and congestion is like in Thousand Islands.”

Seymour continues: “There are a couple of things in Ogdensburg’s favour. It is definitely far less travelled. The volume that can lead to congestion and backups and extended delays at Thousand Islands are very unlikely to happen at Ogdensburg. You can easily waste an hour at Thousand Islands. That can create stress for a driver. If Thousand Islands is backed up, Ogdensburg is a very logical alternative.”

Of those two-lane highways, Seymour says, “In a commercial vehicle, getting paid by the mile, you want to go as fast as you can. A problem is that you will run a two-lane road east or west for an hour (between Alexandria Bay and Ogdensburg).”

Bob Duncan, Kriska’s compliance and training safety specialist, used to drive for the company. He sees little advantage to crossing at Ogdensburg.

“The only time I would take it is if we would go to customers in Ogdensburg. For other customers the Thousand Islands Bridge made more sense to me. At Ogdensburg, you have to take two-lane highways get to the 81. For us, as a company, it doesn’t make sense to do that.”

Duncan acknowledges that he never waited in a line-up at Ogdensburg, but no trucker could say the same of the Thousand Islands. Depending on the day of the week, average wait times there can be as high as 30 minutes. On the two busiest days of the week, Friday and Saturday, daytime wait times can be as long as one hour to two-and-a-half hours.

It seems reasonable to conclude that, as far as distances and wait times go, truckers with access to current wait times at both crossings, and who are aware of the typical daily traffic surges, could frequently sooth their ulcers by using the Ogdensburg crossing. And its lower fees are on offer 24/7.

But there is another, Quebecer-centric consideration, according to Benoit Therrien, ex-trucker and now a producer for the radio talk show Truck Stop Quebec. “It is easier to talk to the officers at Ogdensburg. Small borders are easier for everybody, especially if you don’t speak good English. They take their time and explain things slowly. It is really easy for a French trucker. They are in no rush, because it is not a big border.”

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