Fedsanticipate ‘painful’ border waits in 2008

Published on Thu, Sep 13, 2007 by eg Olson

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Feds anticipate ‘painful’ border waits in 2008

By Meg Olson

Federal officials are still unclear about what will happen when, but they are sure about one thing: when construction of a new Peace Arch U.S. port of entry starts in several weeks.

It will signal the beginning of up to two years of a strangled border.
“It’s going to be painful for everybody,” acknowledged James Rector, assistant port director for the Blaine area.

Rector said meetings were ongoing between General Services Administration (GSA) staff, in charge of building the new facility, Customs and Border Protection (CBP), who need to keep the border open while it’s being built, the contractors on the project, and a handful of other parties involved. “There’s a lot we’re still waiting to hear on,” he said.

CBP will operate out of the existing facility until a new one is ready to move into at the end of 2009, Rector said, but portions of it will need to be closed, starting with the westside primary lanes, as soon as October.

With traffic moving to the east side of the building, where safety restricts lane use during the project, Rector said, “it’s looking like the southbound lanes will be narrowed to two lanes,” one for regular traffic and one for NEXUS.

On busy weekends and in summer the port currently can use up to six regular lanes and one NEXUS lane. “For the most part in winter we use the west side only except for weekends,” Rector said. “With the strong Canadian dollar we expect weekends to stay pretty busy. Peak season averages for traffic are 5,500 a day and it drops to 3,500 in winter, Rector said, except for those busy weekends.

Last quarter the single NEXUS lane processed a third of all traffic to the Peace Arch facility, which Rector said was behind the decision to keep the NEXUS lane operating at the Peace Arch during the construction project. “NEXUS won’t really be affected,” he said. “We’re doing what we can not to disrupt their travel.”

What will be affected is regular traffic, two-thirds of the port’s volume squeezed from six lanes to one lane. If traffic volumes don’t drop, a one-hour wait on a busy Saturday will turn into six hours.

Rector said the hope is that with improved signage and reader boards people will choose the other crossings, where additional resources will be deployed to increase capacity. “We’re working with the B.C. Ministry of Transport trying to keep people informed before deciding to come here,” he said, adding they were also working with Canadian and U.S. law enforcement who face the possibility of border lineups blocking freeways.

On the bright side, this drastic restriction is anticipated to last from 30 to 60 days. “We’re told it’s very temporary,” Rector said. However, the port won’t come back up to full capacity until the project is complete. The east side of the building will close, and a maximum of three lanes will be available for regular traffic, leaving the port at half-capacity. “Next summer it will have a huge impact,” Rector said.

The secondary inspection area will also be reduced during construction, and the shoulder of the road used as overflow, added CBP public affairs officer Willie Hicks, at a time when new document requirements under the Western Hemisphere travel initiative come into effect. “They’ll just have to line up like they do now,” Hicks said. “This is why we need a new facility here.”

GSA public affairs manager Bill Lesh anticipated a further stranglehold on traffic in both directions – northbound and southbound traffic will both be squeezed into single lanes on the west side of the Peace Arch for “at least a year” while an elevated road that will go over the new facility is built from D Street to the border.

This will also affect access to NEXUS lanes during busy periods.
Lesh cautioned that substantial changes to the project could still occur. “The final scenario has not been picked,” he said. “It may happen like that but there are some alternatives.” The primary goal, he said, was to complete the facility before the 2010 winter Olympic Games in Vancouver and Whistler.

“It’s mind-boggling,” said Ken Oplinger, a Blaine resident and president of the Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber of Commerce. “I don’t know how they can possibly think this is meeting the needs of the traveling public.”

Oplinger said that in the two years he and other groups promoting cross-border mobility had been meeting with federal agencies on plans to build a new Peace Arch facility, the concern had been getting it done before the 2010 games. “We were told the impact during construction would not be significant,” he said.

Oplinger pointed out the construction crunch would come at the same time as CBP plans to make passports or other “secure travel documents” mandatory at the border, which means a double-whammy for Whatcom County businesses.

A new study prepared for the Tourism Industry Association of Canada and their partners predicts the new document requirements under the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative will cost Whatcom County 2,000 jobs or 2 percent, not the 0.5 percent predicted by a CBP notice of proposed rulemaking. “That’s a huge impact,” he said. “It will obviously be felt more in places like Blaine and Sumas but Bellis Fair is not the size it is because of local shoppers.”

Oplinger predicted construction delays would be exacerbated by travelers unaware of the new rules, which are proposed to go into effect next summer. “All of this is going to add up and be a real problem,” he said. “On a weekend in February you’ll see summer-type delays. It’ll be horrible. And then summer…”