Delaysand access top concerns of residents

Published on Thu, Dec 2, 2004 by ack Kintner

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Delays and access top concerns of residents

By Jack Kintner

In the second meeting in as many weeks, Blaine residents reacted strongly Tuesday night to federal plans to expand the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) facility at the Peace Arch border crossing. They did not mince their words, expressing the most concern over two issues: how access both to Blaine and across the border may be hindered by construction and design of the new facility, and how Blaine will cope with what promises to be whopper border lineups in the two years it will take to construct the building once it’s designed.
Two weeks ago, the Government Services Administration (GSA) hosted the first informal public meeting at the Blaine Senior Center to display plans for the Peace Arch project. No speeches were made nor was any testimony given, but people could look at maps and renderings, and talk to agency representatives. At Tuesday night’s meeting people spoke on the record as a court reporter took down every word.

The project is essentially a remodeling and expansion of the 30-year-old CBP facilities. It will require up to nine more acres in addition to the three presently occupied by the blue and white customs complex, largely because of increased space needed for a larger staff and for permanent outbound inspection lanes.

The GSA has to find a way to shoehorn all this into available space between the Peace Arch to the north, Peace Arch State Park to the east, Semiahmoo Bay to the west and a freeway interchange to the south, exit 276.

Complicating matters is the fact that the GSA is responsible for constructing buildings while the Federal Highway Administration and the Washington State Department of Transportation is responsible for the adjacent highway and interchange. Co-ordinating the three agencies is a Byzantine task given that all three agencies have protocols that make cooperation sometimes absurdly difficult.

A short-term solution was found when $2.5 million became available recently to undertake a “Access Point Decision Report” required by federal law before a freeway interchange is modified, a report that the GSA could not, again by federal statute, pay for. The money was appropriated by Congress in the recent omnibus budget bill in order to get things moving. Blaine city manager Gary Tomsic, however, is still nervous over Blaine’s already bad access getting worse as the agencies try to work together without necessarily taking Blaine itself into consideration.

“What I can’t understand,” said Tomsic during the question period, “is how Blaine got shafted so badly when the freeway was built in the first place. I challenge anyone to name another town that’s split by a freeway to which access is so limited.”

Tomsic submitted four pages of comments on the project that had been drafted by Blaine community development director Terry Galvin and then read and refined by others, including the Blaine city council. Tomsic pointed out the city was actively engaged in a number of revitalization projects, the success of which could be compromised if highway access to the city becomes even more difficult than it is currently.

The project itself began six years ago. The initial feasibility study was completed in January of 2001, eight months before 9/11, “after which everything changed, including this project,” said the GSA’s project manager Mark Howard. He pointed out that it took another 18 months for a revised feasibility study, completed in June of 2002, “and that pre-dates the creation of the Department of Homeland Security,” Howard said.

Oddly, the next step was to submit a construction budget request, done last May even though the facility has not yet been designed, leading some like Hugh Conroy of the Whatcom Council of Governments to wonder out loud if some decisions have already been made about the facility. For example, when asked about the permanent out-bound inspections lanes in the three proposed configurations, Howard said that there’s no guarantee that this will even be a part of the project.

But Mike Milne of CBP has said that permanent out-bound inspection lanes will be needed. “The U.S. Visit program monitors how long foreign visitors remain in the country,” he said, “and we also want the jurisdiction to deal with people trying to smuggle contraband out of the country, things like large amounts of money and military weapons. Once they cross that line we can’t put them through our system.”

Conroy reacted to this by saying that simply adding another inspection to the cross border trip, making it a three-stop process, will increase travel time for a cross-border traveler. “The continued narrowing of the cross border connection has both economic and cultural consequences that should be examined,” Conroy said, “such as the current border back-ups that often stretch south beyond the current CBP building. By adding out-bound booths these lengthy summer backups will begin at the CBP building and stretch south through Blaine, further impacting access to the city.”

Conroy pointed out that, “Permanent installation of outbound inspection seems to contradict the objectives of the smart border declaration between the U.S. and Canada, the main point of which was to facilitate the legitimate flow of people and goods across the border. I hope that commitment is still there. For example, they could be working on a one-stop process that includes the kinds of things the US inspectors now want to retain.”

Conroy later pointed out as an example that people traveling to Winter Olympic venues that will be spread throughout greater Vancouver as well as at Whistler “are at least used to a quality travel experience,” one that should not include unwarranted border delays. The current time line described by Howard has construction being completed on the new facility just a few months before the Olympics are scheduled, in February of 2010.

Wayne Dent of Blaine, whose property abuts I-5, expressed serious doubts that planners had taken potential delays at the border into considerations. “I see these backups now,” he said, “and with adding a two-year construction project, part of which is underground underneath the present roadway, the backups will be huge. How can you take care of that for three years?”

The next step in the process that involves the public is formulation of a draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), ready for review next July. The final EIS will be issued in February of 2006, the design will be finalized in July of 2006, and construction will begin in September of 2006 and is projected to be completed by September of 2009.