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In Windsor, Sept. 11 wrought change for the better at Canada-U.S. border

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WINDSOR, Ont. - There are many tales of border-hugging business owners still waiting for the post-9-11 hangover to end, but at least a few in this bustling border city believe there were positive changes wrought by the terrorist tragedy of 10 years ago.

The Sept. 11 attacks created a ripple effect of enhanced security, procedural changes and weariness amongst travellers, especially at the Windsor-Detroit crossing — one of the busiest in North America.

But Mourice Faddoul, owner of the Windsor-based Moe’s Transport, said 9-11 helped bring in money and new technology to the major port over the last decade.

"Everything has changed at the border," Faddoul said in an interview.

"It is all electronic now, with transmitting decals on the window. The transponders changed everything for the better."

Faddoul, whose company has 300 drivers and trucks crossing the border about 200 times a day, remembers a time when it took so long to cross the Ambassador Bridge, portable toilets were installed along the route for desperate drivers.

These days, five-hour delays are a think of the past, Faddoul said.

"What happened before 9-11 was officers wouldn’t know who’s who," he said. "God forbid something was to happen now, at least instead of having the huge backup like after 9-11, they have a separate system now."

After Sept. 11, the Canada Border Services Agency and U.S. Customs and Border Protection rolled out initiatives such as the Free and Secure Trade program, eManifest and the Ambassador Bridge Service and Security Initiative to help ease the lines for commercial vehicles.

"In the good old days prior to 9-11, everything was paper," said Chief Ron Smith, a Detroit spokesman for USCBP. "So a trucker would show up at the border with his manifest and it would have to be cleared and he would have to go into our office to do that.

"Now most of those manifests are cleared right on the primary line, which cuts out what could be an hour wait or longer in our office."

CBSA spokesperson Jean D'Amelio Swyer said they have also added three truck lanes to the Ambassador Bridge and can operate 13 lanes when necessary.

As far as lines go, D'Amelio Swyer said estimated wait times for travellers reaching the border's primary inspection booth at the Ambassador Bridge are 10 minutes on weekdays and 20 minutes on weekends and holidays.

Despite the initiatives to keep vehicles moving, however, statistics show traffic at the Detroit-Windsor crossing is significantly less than what it was a decade ago.

The U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics said more than 15.2 million personal vehicle passengers and 1.64 million trucks used the port in 2001, compared with more than 7.2 million personal vehicle passengers and 1.45 million trucks in 2010.

Some Windsor businesses say they've suffered because of the drop in volumes.

"You grow up in a border town and you can go across freely and that’s changed now," said James McVeity, the general manager of downtown Windsor bar The Honest Lawyer.

"A lot of people would say it’s a hassle to go across now, but all it is (is) you need more documentation and there’s a bit more focus on security, and that stops people from coming across like they used to."

Nonetheless, there are some Canadian businesses that still work hard to woo U.S. customers. The Windsor Laser Eye Institute tries to lure Michigan clients with billboards and newspaper ads in the Detroit area.

"Before 9-11 it was 90 per cent (American clients), now it’s about 20 per cent," said manager Robin Marentette.

"There are a lot of factors — crossing the border and the perception of the big backups and most recently with the passports."

A decade later, after technical upgrades and efforts to convince Americans crossing the border may not be as big a hassle as they perceive, things are slowly starting to improve — and businesses are taking notice.

Filip Rocca, who owns two restaurants, Mezzo and Centro, on Windsor's Little Italy street, said he saw a dramatic decrease in American clientele after 9-11, but those numbers are starting to rise again.

About 20 per cent of his customers are now from the U.S. and he’s seen an increase in the last six months — something he credits to more Americans finally obtaining the proper identification.

"The government was telling everyone you need to have these specific documents to cross the border, and I think a lot of Americans never even had a passport before," Rocca said.

"I think that due to our proximity they’re finding value in getting a passport to come over to Canada because we’re so close and there’s so much to offer over here."

On the American side, Smith said he agrees public awareness is increasing. More travellers are presenting the proper documentation at the border in just over two years since the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative was implemented, he said.

Border waits for travellers aren’t that bad, Smith added, especially now that there are two or three times as many U.S. customs officers at most locations as there were before 9-11.

"With the technology and the effectiveness of our officers, it has done nothing but improve."

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