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Canada-U.S. border crossing ‘woefully insufficient’, Congress hears

by Candice Miller on April 6, 2011

Canada-U.S. border crossing ‘woefully insufficient’, Congress hears
Vancouver Sun
WASHINGTON — Efforts to ease congestion at one of the busiest Canada-U.S. border crossings are being hampered by “woefully insufficient” American customs infrastructure and ill-considered budget cuts, a congressional panel heard Tuesday.
The problems at the Blue Water Bridge crossing, which links Sarnia, Ont., to Port Huron, Mich., are so acute that U.S. agents must conduct secondary inspections of commercial vehicles at off-site locations because the existing customs plaza lacks enough space to accommodate on-site searches.
“Delays are very common for U.S.-bound traffic, particularly during the busy summer months,” Stanley Korosec, vice-president of Blue Water Bridge Canada, said in prepared testimony before a House homeland security subcommittee.
“These delays have serious, adverse economic consequence of local, regional, national and international concern. Further, (they) negatively affect our shared environment, as hundreds of vehicles sit idling in long queues.”
The Blue Water Bridge is the second-busiest commercial truck crossing at the Canada-U.S. border, with about one-quarter of its traffic related to the auto industry. When passenger traffic is included, the Blue Water crossing is the third busiest. About 4.7 million vehicles crossed at the site in 2009.
While Canada has completed a planned expansion to its customs plaza on the Sarnia side, Korosec testified that plans to upgrade the U.S. customs facility have become bogged down in bureaucratic and budget delays.
“Currently, there is no place on the existing (port of entry) in which to unload and inspect the contents of a commercial vehicle; this at the second-busiest commercial crossing on the northern border,” said Korosec.
Blue Water Bridge Canada is a Crown corporation that operates the Canadian side of the bridge, while the Michigan Department of Transportation controls the U.S. side.
“We do the best with what we have,” Korosec said. “It is what we have that is the issue.”
The Blue Water Bridge became a travel choke-point in 2007, when officials recorded 151 days in which travellers experienced waits of more than one hour heading from Canada into the U.S. because of a Customs and Border Patrol staffing shortage.
Staffing on the U.S. side is no longer an issue, Korosec said, but existing infrastructure is “woefully insufficient” and continues to cause delays.
To unload a southbound commercial vehicle, U.S. customs and border patrol agents “are forced to escort the uninspected vehicle through the Port Huron community to an off-site inspection facility,” he said.
The procedure introduces “increased security risks” and results in “increased delays for legitimate shipments” of goods into the U.S., Korosec added.
Rep. Candice Miller, the Michigan Republican who chairs the House border and maritime security subcommittee, called the hearing as part of her broader effort turn Congress’s attention from problems along the U.S.-Mexico border to the Canada-U.S. frontier.
“The Canadians actually have done their plaza expansions on their side and the U.S. has not done plaza expansions on our side,” Miller said. “Much of the problems we are having in expediting (traffic) is obviously just not having enough capacity to accommodate what we need to accommodate.”
A $583-million U.S. project that would have added seven “primary inspection lanes” at the American customs plaza — and reduced average waiting times from about 30 minutes to three — has fallen victim to cost-cutting.
It has been replaced by a much less ambitious $110-million plan that fails to add enough capacity to eliminate delays, and yet has to be budgeted for by Washington.
The scaled-down plan does not properly connect the customs plaza to two major U.S. interstate highways — I-94 and I-65 — and leaves in place the aging customs plaza, Korosec said.
The funding problems on the American side highlight the challenges Canada and the U.S. will face as they try to negotiate a sweeping border security agreement.
A plan announced in February by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and President Barack Obama establishes “binational port of entry committees” to co-ordinate planning and funding of border infrastructure. Officials will also begin negotiating the feasibility of joint border facilities “within and beyond” Canada and the United States.

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