Localofficials worry about border

Published on Thu, Mar 17, 2005 by ack Kintner

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Local officials worry about border

By Jack Kintner

Border inspectors working at the Blaine crossing have a new building to look forward to that may be finished just before the 2010 Winter Olympics, but the plans have some local and area officials nervous.
A meeting last Friday that brought all interested parties together at Senator Patty Murray’s Seattle office did little to achieve more inter-agency cooperation but at least provided some hope, according to Blaine city manager Gary Tomsic.

No one questioned the push for an expanded customs facility at the Peace Arch crossing. “There’s no doubt that we need more space,” said Blaine’s port director for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Service, Peg Fearon, “since we’ve doubled our staff. And the building is not well designed in terms of security.”

To accommodate this need the Government Services Administration (GSA) is planning to renovate the Peace Arch crossing facility, as it already has done with the Pacific Highway crossing on Highway 542 and at Point Roberts. The present facility occupies about three acres of ground but the GSA has said at two local informational meetings and an educational session that depending upon design parameters it may need as much as four times that.

Officials from the city of Blaine, the Washington State Department of Transportation (DOT) and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) have pointed out that GSA’s plans will almost certainly have a negative impact on traffic flow and on freeway access into Blaine for southbound traffic. Additionally, the GSA’s timetable has the construction being completed just a few months before the Olympic games are scheduled for Vancouver.

Tomsic has expressed the concern that access issues related to GSA’s plans may not only impede access into Blaine, but this could easily happen during one of the better tourist seasons to come along in some years.

The GSA has responded that since it only builds buildings and not roads, the impact it may or may not have on I-5 and its only southbound exit into Blaine is not its responsibility. “These are two separate projects,” said Bill DuBay, GSA’s public affairs officer in Seattle, “and though there will be times when access to Blaine is closed off, our project is north of the 276 exit.”

Tomsic said bluntly that the GSA’s environmental impact statements say nothing about the impact all this will have on Blaine. “They also don’t want this delaying the job,” Tomsic said, “even though the FHWA has received a small grant to look at how all this will impact roads they’re responsible for, which is a necessary first step in getting funding to re-do the interchange. But if you look at the map, their building is already right up against the only exit into Blaine, requiring an immediate decision if people are to stop in Blaine on their way south after crossing the border. I don’t understand how they conclude that moving their building further south will have no impact on our access.”

The GSA’s intransigence led Senator Patty Murray’s office to host two meetings that gathered representatives from all interested parties, including the GSA, both highway agencies, the city of Blaine, the Whatcom Council of Governments and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, represented by port director Fearon primarily as a resource.
“Not much happened at the meeting, although I think we did clear the air,” Tomsic said. DuBay said that he was happy with the exchange that took place, but when pressed said that the GSA had still not changed it position. “The building is totally undersized, the traffic patterns are inadequate. We need to replace it, and nothing’s changed,” said DuBay, so waiting isn’t an option for us.”

After citing a number of GSA success stories in building new customs facilities with minimal impact, DuBay admitted that the Peace Arch crossing was “unique” in being located so close to a freeway interchange. “We’re doing this in an acceptable way that satisfies the letter of the law,” he said, “and are sharing all our plans with all the other concerned agencies.”

Tomsic said the big issues are timing and funding. “If we could work together with them on this we could avoid possible mistakes that we may have to live with for a number of years, but we’re close to running out of time to be able to do that,” he said.

When asked about the neighborhood immediately east of the present building that the GSA plans to buy out to make room for a parking lot, Dubay said that this decision hasn’t been made even though all proposed designs that the GSA has made public so far show the parking lot in that location. When asked if it wouldn’t be cheaper to put their parking underground as the Canadians plan to do with their new facility than have to buy out roughly a dozen living units, most of them separate houses, Dubay said that “building underground can be expensive, too,” and “that’s a design decision that will be made at the proper time.”

Tomsic said that Blaine’s ace in the hole has been Senator Murray’s involvement, since re-locating an interchange might require federal funding, “and then you have to ask if our project is more important than Seattle’s Alaskan Way viaduct, for example.”

But Tomsic said that by hosting these meetings that the GSA is getting the message that there is concern in congress over the issue of access. “She’s been very helpful. I appreciate the way they’re involved in this, along with Senator Cantwell and [Congressman] Rick Larsen.”