Border construction won’t slow Olympic travelers

Published on Thu, Mar 19, 2009 by Marisa Willis

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Following published reports in Seattle media regarding construction delays at the Peace Arch border crossing, the federal agency in charge of construction says it plans to keep the community better informed if any more bumps in the road arise.

The General Services Administration (GSA) is responsible for overseeing the federal construction project which began in October 2007. Construction was scheduled to be completed before the February 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympic Games. New projections have now pushed that date to November 2010, said GSA public affairs officer Ross Buffington.

Although Buffington said a statement was released months ago, several media outlets reported on the construction delay just last week and that is when “all hell broke loose,” said Ken Oplinger, president of Bellingham/Whatcom County Chamber of Commerce.
Oplinger said he has been disappointed with the lack of communication about the project. The large number of people unaware of the delay showed how poorly GSA had been communicating with the outside, Oplinger said.

Buffington said the concerns have been recognized and the GSA is focused on meeting higher standards.

“We are redoubling our communications effort with the local Blaine and Whatcom County communities,” Buffington said. “We want our communication levels to be acceptable to all parties involved in this project.”

To date, $75 million has been budgeted for the border facilities, and Buffington said the GSA has requested an additional $28.5 million from Congress to complete the project. Improvements to the third largest U.S. Port of Entry includes 10 inspection booths, a new Interstate-5 northbound bridge and an expanded administrations building.

Olympic travelers

Buffington said the GSA is working hard to have all possible booths open during construction. He also said they are committed to completing the 10 primary inspection booths before the Olympics, less than a year away on February 12.

The only major project that will remain under construction during the Olympics will be the main port of entry facility.

The old administrative building, built in 1976, will still be available for use, and Buffington said they are not expecting any adverse effects because of this.

Oplinger said he still fears the border crossing will be clogged with vehicles once Olympic travelers start journeying toward Vancouver, B.C.

He said he expects traffic to be similar to a busy summer weekend when more than 4,000 cars cross the border a day.

“I don’t think there’s any question that the construction will affect throughput at the border,” Oplinger said. “How are we supposed to deal with that influx with essentially one arm tied behind our backs?”
Because of a lack of relevant data, it has been hard to predict exactly the kind of numbers the border should expect during the Olympics.

But, CBP public affairs officer Thomas Schreiber said the amount of vehicles will most likely be very manageable.

Schreiber said considering February is historically the border’s slowest month and many Olympic travelers will be crossing at non-peak hours, the borders may not be as bad as many anticipate.

“In my experience, it’s the current exchange rate that creates the ebb and flow of the borders, not congestion,” Schreiber said.

Summer lines too long

And a poor exchange rate is just the kind of thing county officials fear.
Though Olympic traffic could prove problematic, Oplinger said he is most worried about this coming summer and the effects a slow border crossing will have on an already declining tourism economy.

The Peace Arch border crossing is currently operating with three regular inspection lanes and one NEXUS lane. Oplinger said it may be the wait times getting back into Canada that defer people from traveling south, though.

Because of the I-5 bridge construction, the number of northbound lanes has been limited to one regular and one NEXUS lane going north. When the bridge is completed in September 2009 it will have two regular lanes and one NEXUS lane.

The bridge and new booths will also not be complete in time for the World Police and Fire Games that start on July 31, 2009 in B.C.

Always alternative routes

Schreiber said there are many ways to avoid traffic congestion during the summer and the upcoming Olympics. Travelers just need to plan their trips in advance, strive to commute during non-peak travel times and take advantage of alternative routes.

Besides the Peace Arch, there are three other border crossings in Whatcom County. Lynden, Sumas and the truck crossing at Pacific Highway will all be prepared to help with the influx of traffic coming south from Canada, said Schreiber.

GSA hopes to mend relationships

The GSA has scheduled a tour of the Peace Arch border crossing construction site for members of the International Mobility and Trade Corridor Project (IMTC). The open house takes place Thursday, February 19 and will allow members to see for themselves the progress of the project.

Oplinger, a member of the IMTC, plans to attend the event and said he thinks the GSA is beginning to make the appropriate effort they should have from the start.

“All the issues are now on their radar screens,” Oplinger said. “If they follow with their plan, than I think the issue will be put to rest.”

More information

Beginning June 1, anyone entering the U.S. by land or sea will be required to present a passport or the equivalent documents.

Equivalent to passports are Enhanced Drivers Licenses, U.S. passport cards and Trusted Traveler Program Cards including NEXUS, SENTRI or FAST cards.