2010 Olympics driving border infrastructure concerns
By Meg Olson
“If the story of the games becomes what happens at the border it will be very bad for the image of the United States,” Bellingham Whatcom Convention and Visitors Bureau director John Cooper told a border town hall hosted by U.S. Representative Rick Larsen last week. “We could be in for a perfect storm.”
With a series of policy changes and major infrastructure projects coming to local borders between today and the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, there is growing concern that if the brakes don’t get put on somewhere, all Whatcom County will get out of the international event is a reputation for traffic jams.
“We have an alphabet soup of programs right now and we have the 2010 Olympics,” said Larsen, a co-chair of the governor’s 2010 Olympic Task Force, at the July 6 meeting. “We need to get a handle on what these programs are, how they cooperate, how they’re going to fit together and do we need to throttle back on one.”
According to the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games (VANOC) over 250,000 visitors, athletes and officials are expected to attend these events in February and March 2010, along with 10,000 members of the world media. While there does not seem to be a firm estimate on how many of those will come through Washington, there is every expectation it will be significant. A Whatcom Council of Governments (WCOG) projection is predicting that if 15 percent of all attendees come up Interstate 5 it would mean 2,405 additional vehicles in each direction every day of Olympic travel. “With the added cars, if everybody went to Peace Arch, that would get Peace Arch up to 105 percent of a peak August day,” said project manager Hugh Conroy.
As travelers in 2010 cross the border they will run into what COG planning director Gordon Rogers called “a change of landscape.” Infrastructure changes are planned for all four mainland ports of entry in Whatcom County, aimed at improving freight mobility and national security. “For the next five years there’s going to be a lot of construction going on,” Rogers said.
Highway improvements are planned on both sides of the border approaching the Sumas, Lynden, and Pacific Highway ports of entry. “All of these projects are going to be completed by 2009. They are sure,” Rogers said.
It is expected the bulk of passenger traffic headed for Vancouver and Whistler, or returning, will pass by the Peace Arch, and both the Canadian and U.S. facilities at that port of entry are scheduled to be replaced.
The new Canadian facility at Douglas is already under construction, but the U.S. project is still on the drawing board and General Services Administration (GSA) public affairs manager Peter Gray said they anticipate a final design won’t be available until after environmental review wraps up in early 2006. “The target date for completion is currently September 2009,” he said.
Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber of Commerce president Ken Oplinger said the business community is anticipating every hotel room in the county to be full for the games, and they’d like more assurance their guests can make it back from Vancouver without unreasonable delays due to construction. “I have a real concern,” he said. “If there’s going to be a delay they need to put it off.”
Blaine city manager Gary Tomsic said he was also concerned that a rushed project could cut corners. “My fear is that the pressure to get it done could serve to leave up without an optimum answer to our access issues,” he said.
Gray said they were not considering delaying construction. “The question of the 2010 winter Olympics is something we need to manage around but it is not a driving factor,” he said, adding that it was national security driving the replacement of the port facility. “We’re not doing this because of the Olympics.”
Oplinger also was concerned about the impact of another measure aimed at improving national security: the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, which proposes requiring all travelers crossing the border, including U.S. and Canadian citizens, to have a secure travel document such as a passport by the end of 2007.
Larsen said the first responsibility lay with Olympic organizers to make sure everyone coming to the games knew the requirements to cross the border. “There will be a need for a larger education effort once the department of homeland security (DHS) goes through the rule-making on this and decides what those requirements will be,” he said.
Oplinger and other chambers of commerce heads along the border are urging the government to consider at least three possible forms of accepted identification, including a drivers’ license and birth certificate.
Bellingham attorney Greg Boos pointed to the US-VISIT program as another new security measure that could clog the border, adding an exit inspection step for all visitors with an exemption for most Canadians. “I’m concerned because it will impact this community even if it works perfectly,” he said.
Larsen said the next five years would be about coordinating solutions to mobility and security concerns. “Although it’s Vancouver’s Olympics the security circle will clearly step into Washington,” he said.
While the Olympics in Vancouver might bring some headaches, Larsen pointed out that they also brought tremendous opportunities for local businesses and communities. “It’s important both during and after the event the Northwest does a good job of marketing,” he said. “A lot of the impact takes place after the games.”
Blaine Chamber of Commerce president Pam Christianson agreed that the biggest opportunity for Blaine was to use the Olympics as an introduction, a way for visitors to discover local communities.
“I see as it as people crossing the border, stopping for a bite or information and wanting to come back,” she said. “If they get stuck in a long line people will be upset with us. They’ll just say let’s keep going.”