Border agencies increase access hours for NEXUS

Published on Thu, Oct 24, 2002 by Meg Olson

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Border agencies increase access hours for NEXUS

By Meg Olson

Nexus users crossing at Blaine ports of entry now have 13 hours a day of continuous access to the commuter lanes, but with a hitch. If the traffic is backed up at Pacific Highway, which will provide mid-day NEXUS access, program participants can’t get to the lane.

“That’s an infrastructure issue on the Canadian side,” said U.S. Customs representative Mike Milne. “They are planning a new highway by 2004 to address that.”

Nexus lane hours expanded this Monday, following an October 16 meeting of the four agencies administering the program: U.S and Canadian customs and immigration services. “The decision was based on two things,” said Milne. “The first was volume and the second to provide continuous NEXUS coverage at Blaine 13 hours a day.” There will be no change at Point Roberts, where the U.S. NEXUS lane is open two hours each evening.

Blaine coverage has been split between Peace Arch and Pacific Highway ports of entry. NEXUS hours at Peace Arch have been extended Monday through Friday in the morning from 7 a.m. to noon and afternoon hours remain at 3 to 8 p.m. Weekend hours remain unchanged: 8 a.m. to noon on Saturdays and 3 to 9 p.m. on Sundays.

Hours for Pacific Highway have been cut back to noon to 3 p.m. every day, due to low volumes at that location. Traffic through the Pacific Highway Nexus lane represented less than four percent of total Nexus traffic in September. The problem is, with only three access lanes, one for trucks and two for passenger vehicles, there is no access lane for NEXUS, meaning if the line is more than about 10 vehicles long, NEXUS participants need to wait in line with everyone else. At the Peace Arch, however, a dedicated access lane established for the PACE program lets NEXUS participants separate from the regular traffic flow a mile from the port.

Milne said the decision to keep Pacific Highway open despite the low usage would rest with INS and Customs headquarters in Washington, D.C. “Headquarters said we will have NEXUS at these locations and we are,” he said.

The expanded hours for NEXUS are an offshoot of an ongoing review of the system both locally and nationally. “As the system and demand grows, we’ll continue to look at it,” said INS national head of inspections Thomas Campbell. “Hours we pretty much let the local guys do.”

Other changes that could be in the works include tweaking the criteria for admissibility to the program. “According to the four agency, two country’s rules it says no criminal history,” Campbell said. “There are all sorts of people who get caught up in the wide screen. Right now we’re looking at the criteria to see if they need to be relaxed or tightened.” At a Shared Border Accord meeting between Canada and the U.S. scheduled for this month Campbell said NEXUS criteria would be on the agenda.

“Commissioners from the agencies need to get together and see which direction they want to take.”

Another area which may be discussed is a possible process for rejected applicants to appeal the decision. “Right now the decision of the enrollment center is final,” Campbell said. Lawsuits challenging the NEXUS enrollment process may be brewing as applicants denied membership question how fair the system is, specifically the lack of published criteria for eligibility and the lack of an appeal process. Two years ago the INS lost a class action lawsuit over vehicle seizures in federal district court, in which plaintiffs claimed their constitutional rights to due process were violated by murky procedures and a dead-end appeal process.

NEXUS membership continues to grow, with 16,000 participants on October 21. The U.S. enrollment center continues to plow through the deluge of applications received in the first few months Nexus enrollment was open, but the rate of applications coming in at the Canadian processing center which first receives them is tailing off. “We’ve gone from receiving 6,000 in a week to a few hundred,” said Canada Customs representative Harry Dearing. He estimates they now have 34,000 applications, only a few thousand above the total in early August. Also, fall appears to have brought with it a slight drop in how many vehicles use the lane per hour and how many trips are made per member.

“That’s pretty typical for a dedicated commuter lane system,” Campbell said. “It ramps up and then drops off.” If applications continue to arrive at their current rate it would take three years for the NEXUS program to have as many participants as Ron Hays, former chief of inspections for the INS Seattle district, said were enrolled in its predecessor – the PACE program. Hays told a June 11 audience in Blaine that PACE had 189,000 participants when it was terminated for security concerns following September 11.

Campbell doesn’t think the gap between PACE and NEXUS enrollment numbers is due to a reluctance to face higher NEXUS scrutiny, but to faulty PACE data. “It was a homegrown operation and record keeping was very poor,” he said. Campbell said they collected all the names with a date of birth in the PACE database and came up with 67,000. Asked if that number could correspond to vehicles in the program, under which several people could be enrolled, Campbell said he didn’t know and it didn’t matter. “Vehicles or people, I can’t comment on that and besides, PACE is closed so that number isn’t really important.”

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