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Ground broken on I-81 border station upgrade

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ALEXANDRIA BAY — Transportation, border security and elected officials gathered Wednesday morning to break ground on a $1.3 million highway project to improve efficiency at the Interstate 81 border crossing station on Wellesley Island.

Funding for the project will come from the $1.1 billion New York state received for highway and bridge projects through the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

The ceremony took place at 11 a.m. at the I-81 U.S. Customs and Border Protection station north of the Thousand Islands Bridge. Half a dozen officials praised the project before plunging gold-lacquered shovels into a pile of dirt on the pavement, momentarily slowing traffic lining up to enter the U.S. from Canada.

The project itself aims to alleviate congestion at the border by expanding from two lanes to four the roadway that funnels traffic into eight manned U.S. Customs and Border Protection check-in stations. Construction will begin immediately and should be complete by the end of the year, said Michael R. Flick, state Department of Transportation Region 7 spokesman.

"This border crossing is of vital importance to the economies on both sides of the St. Lawrence River," Stanley Gee, acting commissioner of the state Department of Transportation, said during the press conference.

Following Mr. Gee in praising the project were state Sen. Darrel J. Aubertine, D-Cape Vincent; Robert G. Horr, III, executive director of the Thousand Islands Bridge Authority; Alan F. Whitcomb, area port director for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and Rhonda M. McNeely, regional director for the Associated General Contractors union. Representing Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell, D-Theresa, was her chief of staff, Mark A. Pacilio. Other officials from the state Department of Transportation Region 7 also attended.

The economic benefits of the project are twofold, Sen. Aubertine said after the ceremony. In addition to the immediate job creation, "the smoother we can make the transition going from Canada to the U.S., the more people are going to take advantage of it."

Ms. McNeely, representing the contractors' union, said the project will create about a dozen jobs. Luck Brothers Inc., Plattsburgh, will do the work.

Under the current setup, "We spend many, many hours directing traffic" from two approaching lanes into the eight check-in stations, Mr. Whitcomb, the port director, said during the press conference. Commercial trucks must break off from the approach lanes and follow the curving roadway around a large rock wall.

That means "on busy port days, the trucks will backed up to Canada," Mr. Flick said. And, he said, the days are busy "more often than not."

"That giant rock knob is going bye-bye," he said.

When it does, the queuing space will double, Mr. Whitcomb said, and that will ease the traffic-sorting process for motorists and border officials alike.

"Seconds are really important when it comes to processing traffic," he said. "It slows the entire process down."

By doubling the number of approach lanes, "it will be more obvious to the traveling public where they need to go."

The I-81 border crossing facility is slated for a major renovation through the state General Services Administration in 2011, and "the lane widening will set that up, so when that happens, it will go more smoothly," Mr. Flick said.

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