GSApresents drafts of border expansion

Published on Thu, Nov 18, 2004 by ack Kintner

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GSA presents drafts of border expansion

By Jack Kintner

An alphabet soup of state and federal agencies was present at an open house hosted by the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) last Tuesday evening at the senior center to display and explain plans and timetables for a planned expansion of customs and immigration facilities at the Peace Arch border crossing.

The evening was primarily for informal discussion and a chance to ask questions and no official presentations were made. In two weeks the GSA, as the lead agency, will convene the groups again at the senior center to officially begin the process with a legally required National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) public scoping meeting, to gather comments from the public that will be made a part of the official record.

“They’ll have a court reporter here to take it all down,” said Elizabeth Healy, area engineer for the Federal Highway Administration, whose acronym is FHWA to distinguish it from the Federal Housing Administration (FHA). “The GSA will record and consider every comment made,” Healy said.

Dan Pomplum of the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Homeland Security said that the current building is both inadequate and unsafe. “The number of staff people working in the port of entry (POE) building has tripled, so it’s very overcrowded,” Pomplum said.
Most designs include lanes for outbound traffic as well as inbound, indicating that in the not too distant future people will have to pass through U.S. customs and be liable for inspection traveling both directions. “That’s right,” said Pomplum, “though we don’t know when yet.”

Mike Milne of the CBP office in Seattle said that exit inspections will become standard because of problems with money laundering from drug profits and people who take weapons and other contraband out of the country. “And there’s an enforcement angle, too,” he said, “because once they cross that line we lose our jurisdiction. We do have an interest in seeing that certain kinds of material do not leave the country, and that people with limited visa rights have not overstayed their time.”

A GSA handout further stated that the building, designed and built during the Carter administration, is inefficient and unsafe. How the GSA will do better the next time as it expands the POE facility from its present three-acre footprint to as much as 12 acres will become clear once the design phase begins next month.

To accommodate that much expansion inevitably means dislocation for the neighborhood and re-locating exit 276 a block or so farther south on the freeway. Local businessman Dale Schrader, who owns the Subway Shop at Marine Drive and Peace Portal Way, wondered why the customs facility can’t just be expanded into Peace Arch State Park, leaving the exit as is.

“They may actually have to take a small piece of the park,” said Todd Carlson, a planning and operations manager for the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), as he pointed to a few square yards of park property crossed by an access driveway to a parking lot in one of the conceptual drawings. “There’s another slice of landscaped property here,” he said, pointing to the area across the northbound lanes east of the present facility, “that will be changed, and some people may think this is also park land, but it isn’t. It belongs to us,” he said, meaning the WSDOT.

Initially the GSA sought to move the Peace Arch Park west in order to be able to use part of its present location, but at preliminary meetings held in 1999 they heard very clearly that this was not acceptable since the park is already on the shoreline. “Then came 9/11 and everything changed,” said Healy.

The cost of the new building and of the new interchange are both in the $20 to $30 million range. “It’s the right-of-way costs that make the freeway approaches so pricey,” said Healy. In 1998-9, the FHWA and WSDOT spent over $5 million on improvements to exit 276.

Since the other agencies are listed as “cooperating” on the planned environmental impact statement, they’ll all continue to be a part of the planning process. Aside from the lead agency, GSA, this also includes WSDOT, FHWA and CBP.

“Make sure it also includes Y-O-U,” said Blaine city manager Gary Tomsic, hoping for as much public input as possible in two weeks. Blaine city officials are anxious to make sure Blaine’s already poor freeway access from the north isn’t made worse in the re-development of the crossing facilities.

The time table for all this calls for a design phase to begin this December and last through July of 2006, for construction to begin in September of 2006 and be completed in three years, just in time for the winter Olympics in 2010.

The next meeting will be held in two weeks, on November 30 at 6:30 p.m. in the senior center.