Commuter lane program fast-tracked but in future

Published on Thu, Nov 29, 2001 by Meg Olson

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Commuter lane program fast-tracked but in future

By Meg Olson

While momentum seems to be building to reestablish commuter lanes (DCLs) at local borders, there is still no timeline to get the lanes open.
“I think it’s a pretty foregone conclusion NEXUS will be appropriate for implementation across the northern border,” said U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) assistant district director Ron Hays at a November 27 forum in Blaine. Sponsored by the Pacific Corridor Enterprise Council, the forum brought together representatives from both sides of the border and border policy watchers to review available dedicated commuter lane technology and how it could bring relief to congested local borders.

The NEXUS system, currently the front runner for implementation at local ports, involves issuing a radio-frequency card to program participants which can be read remotely as they approach the inspection booth. Participants would be fingerprinted and subject to an FBI background check and the information would be linked to the card through a database system.

Hays said the NEXUS system addressed some of the INS concerns with the now defunct PACE commuter program. “A problem with PACE was it focused on the car, not the traveler,” he said. NEXUS was originally developed with dollars allocated by congress to expand PACE in Whatcom County and ran as a pilot program in Port Huron, Michigan until the events of December 11 led the INS to shut it down.

The Port Huron lane will remain closed and no new lanes will be established until an evaluation of the pilot is complete. “The evaluation is on a fast-track right now,” Hays said. “Tom Campbell is pretty optimistic we will be able to go forward with this project in the very near future.” Deputy district director Bob Okin later confirmed that national chief of inspections Tom Campbell is meeting NEXUS project consultants and visiting local ports this week.

The Pacific Highway, originally planned for the program pilot, will be the original NEXUS site in Whatcom County and Hays said 90 percent of the equipment and the enrollment office were in place. “I’m hoping we can start with enrollment soon,” he said. Hays said program participants would need to pay $25 for FBI fingerprinting and a $25 to $50 enrollment fee that would be valid for several years.

While a new commuter program will ease the burden on frequent border crossers, general travel and trade will still depend on staffing levels and inspection. “We remain at threat level one and there is no anticipated end date,” Hays said. “The best thing to do is for most folks to accept this will go on for a longer time.” Hays said that means inspectors need to confirm every travelers citizenship, inspect every vehicle and cross-check the car against a law enforcement database. The commuter lane program could also be put on hold if it can’t meet heightened security requirements.

Last Sunday, heavy holiday traffic led to waits up to five hours for vehicles entering the United States. “When traffic is that high we have difficulty moving it through,” Hays said, adding a detail change of 21 border patrol agents temporarily assigned to help keep extra lanes open at Whatcom County ports made the situation tighter.

Bellingham attorney Greg Boos outlined some recent federal bills that allocated additional resources to the northern border, such as the PATRIOT Act which provides for a tripling of border staff. Hays cautioned that, until there was funding for the positions, they would exist as intent but not as bodies in booths. If the new staff came through it could mean 50 to 70 new inspectors for Western Washington ports.

Canadian Consul General in Seattle Roger Simmons underlined the need for wider vision of the northern border and the countries it separates. “The solution is not to diminish our freedom but be more vigilant about it,” he said. He encouraged forum participants to look for solutions, such as perimeter security, that would increase safety without undermining a tradition of a largely open border. “Unless we are prepared to put up a wall, while we can make it inconvenient for those who want to do us harm, we can’t stop them from entering one country or another,” he said. “Let’s not get tripped into the notion that if it’s more inconvenient, it’s safer.”.

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