In a turnaround from several years worth of denials, the Department of Homeland Security said it is willing to look at trying the Port of Wild Horse north of Havre as a 24-hour facility.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Commissioner of Customs and Border Protection Alan Bersin and Montana’s U.S. senators. Max Baucus and Jon Tester held a town hall meeting in Havre after touring border facilities in Montana.
Bersin said during the town hall meeting that Napolitano authorized Customs and Border Protection to reinstate a longer period of summer hours — the Port of Wild Horse open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the winter but in the summer is open 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. — and that the agency wants to work with the community to look at ways to increase traffic to justify an upgrade to 24-hour status.
“We will do this together and we will work with you,” Bersin said.
After hearing repeated comments during the meeting from local leaders and residents that the port needs to be upgraded, Napolitano said during a press conference following the meeting that a 24-hour status trial may be merited, and the department will work with local leaders to investigate an upgrade.
“That’s work that we will engage in and engage in as speedily as possible because we’ve heard today from a number of people what a value that could bring,” Napolitano said.
“Let's put together a plan, and it’s got to be a community-generated plan,” she added. “It’s got to come up from Montana, about how that 24-7 would work.”
Bersin said during the press conference Napolitano has asked the agency to work to create a working group and make a community plan. The plan would have to be supported by the senators and local leaders that lays out exactly how it would function, including access roads, and working with the Canadians in Alberta and Saskatchewan from the beginning.
Baucus added that people should look for new ideas and ways to stimulate traffic and economic activity, such as talking to national business leaders — such as the heads of Disney and General Electric and investor Warren Buffet — who will be at his economic summit in Butte on Sept 13 and 14.
“You’ll be able to ask a a lot of good questions and pick some brains of a lot of people and see what may or may not work,” he said. “But the basic point is a lot of this has to be generated locally. People here know what’s needed. … And then, once that plan is put together then we can begin.”
Grassroots groups have been pushing for some seven years to have the federal government upgrade the port, now a part-time facility allowing commercial traffic only on a permit-basis.
A study by the University of Montana Bureau of Business and Economic Research in 2008 estimated — using conservative numbers, the author said — that upgrading the port to 24-hour commercial status would bring millions of dollars in new economic activities and hundreds of new jobs and residents to the area.
Customs and Border Protection has repeatedly said that the amount of traffic using the port does not warrant 24-hour commercial status.
Bersin said the results of a study of extending the summer hours at the port — in 2009 the port ran its summer hours from March 1 through Oct. 31, rather than the previous schedule of May 15 to Sept. 30 — still did not warrant the upgrade. Napolitano had ordered reinstating those hours through Oct. 31 of this year and in the summer of next year to do further studies, he said. CBP also would work with local groups on finding ways to increase the traffic.
Advocates of the upgrade, including Havre Mayor Tim Solomon — who provided Napolitano a copy of the 2008 study — local resident Bob Sivertsen, Havre City Council member Bob Kaul, Montana State University-Northern Chancellor Frank Trocki and Alberta provincial legislator Len Mitzel urged Napolitano and Bersin to continue to work on upgrading the port to a 24-hour commercial status.
Several said more needs to be done to study the impact of longer hours, with some suggesting that perhaps a three- to five-year period is needed and that the 2009 hours were during a period of worldwide economic downturn and not a valid test.
Blaine County Commissioner Vic Miller, an advocate for upgrading the Port of Turner on the Montana-Saskatchewan border to 24-hour commercial status, suggested using an examination of a larger area as an economic corridor and the impact of longer port hours in that corridor.
Rep. Wendy Warburton, R-Havre, also urged the department to work on upgrading the Port of Turner.
Some went further about the Port of Wild Horse. Speaker of the Montana House Bob Bergren, D-Havre, said the port will never see a major increase in hours without the 24-hour commercial status. Truck drivers hauling loads will never risk missing the port being open and having to turn back and take a four-hour detour to go to the port of Sweetgrass north of Shelby, the only 24-hour commercial port on the Montana-Alberta border.
“We’re never going to see the increases in those numbers. If we experiment with a year at 24 hours we would see the numbers, the car counts and truck counts go up. I think those studies will always be flawed. …
“If you build it they will come,” Bergren added.
In the press conference following the town hall meeting, Max Baucus made similar comments.
“It’s clear to me it’s got to be open 24 hours. …” he said. “It’s so key to this part of the state, to north-central Montana. And I’m very appreciative that Homeland Security is going to have this extended hours, but it’s also very clear to me it’s great potential is unrealized.”
Tester added that any planning has to include a commitment from the Montana Department of Transportation to improve access to the port.
“You guys have all been on it. With the viaduct, truck traffic, with the width of that road, we need some great improvements there. …” he said. “It’s kind of a chicken and the egg kind of a deal. We have to make sure we have a commitment before we upgrade that port.”
Napolitano said she wanted to add a period to the discussion.
“We are going to keep the port open with the extended hours for another 12 to 18 months. During that period we are very open to just making it into, converting it into, a 24-7 port,” she said. “But, as we do that and before we do that, what we need to have is kind of a combined plan from the community, with the state, with others, as to how that 24-7 is going to be utilized.”
”And in conjunction with the Canadians,” Baucus added. “There’s a symbiosis here, there’s a synergy here, that’s going to work.”
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