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Border plan promises speed-up, but lacks details

by Candice Miller on December 19, 2011

By JULIANNE MATTERA
Times Herald
http://www.thetimesherald.com/article/20111218/NEWS01/112180311
For Donna Russell-Kuhr’s businesses, the Blue Water Bridge is nothing short of a lifeline between the United States and Canada.
 
Russell-Kuhr’s companies in Fair Haven regularly contract with trucking companies to ship power tools and accessories and automotive goods across the border to Canadian retail stores or automotive plants, said Russell-Kuhr, corporate vice president of PTM Corporation and HTC Products Inc.
 
Delivering those products on time is key for the companies’ success, she said. If they do not meet their customers’ delivery expectations, the companies will not get new contracts and could lose current ones.
 
Backups on the bridge can be a problem for trucks rumbling across the border, Russell-Kuhr said.
 
Goals outlined in an action plan recently released by the United States and Canada could change that. The Beyond the Border Action Plan — released Dec. 7 by President Barak Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper — outlines initiatives where the counties will work together to address threats within and outside their borders.
 
More to the point for business owners such as Russell-Kuhr, the plan also is supposed to speed up the process of trade and travel across the border.
 
Adding infrastructure
Some people believe the plan will result in infrastructure improvements at the Blue Water Bridge.
 
The plan specifically mentions the Blue Water Bridge, among several other border crossings, as a priority to be considered for upgrades. Those could include customs plaza replacement and redevelopment, adding primary inspection lanes and booths, expanding or adding secondary inspection facilities, and expanding or creating new connecting roads, highway interchanges and bridges, according to the plan. Project investment and implementation plans should be developed by June 30.
 
It’s not the first time improvements have been posited for the bridge. In 2009, federal officials approved a $586 million, 56-acre expansion of the plaza; in December 2010, the project was scaledEDback to a $110 million, 16-acre expansion. The official reason was federal budget concerns.
 
Janet Foran, Michigan Department of Transportation spokeswoman, said it’s uncertain whether the new border proposal will improve MDOT’s schedule for the Blue Water Bridge plaza project. But she said the department is hopeful it means good things for the bridge.
 
Under the present schedule, construction could begin on the scaled-back plaza in spring 2015 at the earliest, said Margaret Barondess, manager of MDOT’s environmental section.
 
Barondess said the federal government first has to approve the concept and funding for the project. Funding mainly would come from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s budget. The earliest the project could get funding would be the spring of 2013, Barondess said.
 
But U.S. Rep. Candice Miller, R-Harrison Township, said the Beyond the Border Action Plan was the best news she’s heard regarding the Blue Water Bridge in at least a decade. Since the bridge is mentioned as a priority item for infrastructure improvements, funding to do the plaza expansion should follow, she said.
 
“MDOT has been waiting for the federal agencies to prioritize the Blue Water Bridge … for the money needed for the infrastructure improvements …,” Miller said. “The infrastructure improvement is the plaza. And that would indicate to me that they are going to fund the plaza expansion.”
 
Helping trusted travelers, traders
As part of the plan, Canada also must expand its NEXUS lanes and booths by June 2013 to align with existing investments the United States has made.
 
Stan Korosec, vice president of operations for Blue Water Bridge Canada, said the Canadian side has one NEXUS lane. The agreement would allow for an additional lane to open. The NEXUS program gives pre-screened travelers faster processing by U.S. and Canadian officials at certain northern ports of entry, Canadian airports and marine reporting locations.
 
“That in itself is big because NEXUS is something we promote. And it’s certainly in the agreement that they want to expand benefits for NEXUS users and do additional marketing blitzes to get more people involved in the program …,” Korosec said. “What the whole accord really wants to achieve is these are trusted travelers, they’re known travelers and they get facilitated treatment across the border.”
 
The plan also looks at allowing more carriers and importers into the Free and Secure Trade program, Korosec said. The commercial clearance program allows pre-approved drivers, carriers and importers fewer delays when making cross-border commercial shipments.
 
He said the countries want to simplify the procedure and requirements for traders to get into the FAST program.Drivers enrolled in the NEXUS and FAST programs clear the border faster than other drivers, he said.
 
And having more people enrolled in these trusted traveler and trader programs is a good thing since traffic will move faster across the border.
 
“We’ll see less delays, less congestion and improved commerce between both countries,” Korosec said.
 
Bill Kauffman, St. Clair County administrator, said another NEXUS lane would be a good thing.
 
“We hear an awful lot of complaints that the NEXUS program was really marketed as something that would really help people that regularly cross the border. And lo and behold, after they go through the process of getting certified, come to find out that the lane itself that’s dedicated to NEXUS isn’t always open,” Kauffman said. “So, you end up waiting in line anyway.”
 
Bruce Brown, Port Huron city manager, said a NEXUS card will not help him get to Canada faster when he and friends from outside the Blue Water Area go across the border. He said the problem is everyone in the car must have a NEXUS card. And typically they don’t.
 
Businesses benefit
Still, Brown said shorter wait times on the bridge would help Port Huron and Fort Gratiot businesses, where much of the customer traffic comes from Canada.
 
“Anything that can lessen the wait without compromising the security would be certainly a wonderful thing,” Brown said.
 
Korosec said the number of Canadian shoppers crossing the border this past year has been “incredible.” And shorter wait times would be a good thing for both sides of the border.
 
“We’ve had a 10% increase in our car traffic, and most of that is Canadians going over to Michigan to shop or vacation,” Korosec said. “And they’re subjected to lineups going into the U.S. If those lineups can disappear, it makes it easier for people to cross the border.”
 
Kauffman said he hoped to see an increase in daily commerce from people who live close to the border.
 
“Prior to 9/11 and all the restrictions, there was a lot more cross-border traffic — people just running over to shop or people running over for lunch or for dinner or business meetings,” Kauffman said. “An awful lot of that stopped when it became so much more difficult to cross the border.”
 
Kauffman and his family used to go to Canada to visit restaurants, shop or stop by cultural events. But he said he thinks twice before going now.
 
“It’s the predictability,” he said. “Do I have to sit there for an hour? Or is it going to take me … 10 minutes?”
 
Canadian restaurant owner Chris Pavli agreed — it’s all about convenience.
 
Pavli’s restaurant, the Stokes Bay Grill & Bar, 485 Harbor Road in Sarnia, is only a minute from the Blue Water Bridge. But Pavli said he’s seen less American currency floating around his establishment in recent years.
 
“Our American traffic is definitely lower than it has ever been, I would imagine,” he said.
 
That could be because of higher wait times at the bridge or the fact the American dollar isn’t as valuable, he said.
 
Pavli doesn’t cross the bridge often. But he said shorter wait times would be good for his business.
 
“It would make it more convenient for an American customer to come over and spend money over here,” he said.
 
A framework
for collaboration
Some people, like Chappell Lawson, also feel the Beyond the Border Action Plan is consummate with the idea of “thinning” the United States and Canadian border for legitimate trade and travel.
 
Lawson, an associate professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., recently worked for two years as executive director and senior advisor to the commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
 
Speaking as an academic, Lawson said the agreement sets out a path for the two countries to collaborate more closely in areas of common interest, such as border management. And it could be a framework for making the border thinner.
 
“Think of this as an umbrella for a lot of different small initiatives that together reduce costs of crossing the border for ordinary people and make it more likely that criminals will be caught,” he said.
 
Thinning the border would lower costs for consumers since transaction costs in crossing the border would be lower, Lawson said. People crossing the border would have a shorter wait time. Law enforcement also would be affected, he said.
 
“It means that scarce law enforcement resources are focused on the things that we know are threats or the things about which we have no information at all, rather than the people we both agree are totally unproblematic,” Lawson said.
 
There’s an understanding the goal would be to create better security for North America as a whole, Lawson said. He said, eventually, both governments could get to a point where they feel secure about the type of person entering either country.
 
“… I could imagine the two governments getting to a point where they both felt the level of security was the same even if governments got there differently,” Lawson said. “… That’s where we ought to be headed.”
 
Fred Pearson, a political science professor and director of the Center for Peace and Conflict Studies at Wayne State University in Detroit, agreed partnering with Canada would be good for the United States. But he said the action plan doesn’t address cultural sensitivity at the border.
 
“There’s the general question of constitutionality,” Pearson said. “You can’t trample people’s rights based on some sort of ethnic profiling.”
 
While the plan is supposed to increase information sharing between the two countries, Pearson questioned how well authorities on the U.S. side of the border share information.
 
“On the nitty gritty, the everyday enforcement issues, this alone will not solve all problems,” Pearson said

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