The push to have longer hours at Wild Horse to see the impact on traffic numbers is a one-way street, for the moment.
Lynn Walker of Havre said he and his wife, Carol, were driving to Medicine Hat Saturday, the second day of the extension of summer hours at the U.S.-Canadian border crossing.
He said he was surprised when the U.S. border officials came out about 7 p.m. to stop him from crossing the border.
“Especially when they turned the sirens on and came running out to stop us,” he added, saying the U.S. officials told him the Canadian side is back to its winter hours and closes at 5 p.m. — only traffic coming into the United States has the 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. hours.
He said they were on their way to Calgary and were going to spend the night in Medicine Hat. Instead, the couple turned back to Havre and canceled their reservation — Walker said the Medicine Hat Lodge was very helpful and understanding — then drove up via the Sweetgrass port north of Shelby to go to Calgary and come back the same day.
“We’re just lucky (the lodge) didn’t charge our credit card,” he said.
The hours at Wild Horse have been a hot topic for most of the last decade in Havre. Local residents and officials have joined groups in Alberta pushing to get the permit-only port upgraded to a 24-hour commercial port. That would allow Montana — and the Havre area — to increase its connections with the strong economy in Alberta, they say.
Canada stalls on Wild Horse hours
Normally the port is open from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. from May 15 to Sept. 30, and reverts back to its winter hours of 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. after that. Commercial traffic is allowed only if the company receives a permit to use to the port.
Last year U.S. Customs and Border Protection had a trial run of extending the summer hours to run from March 1 to Oct. 31. The increase in traffic was high, but supporters of expanding the port’s operations say that is due to problems like lack of advertising — and the fact that the Canadian side did not open for summer hours until May 15.
The Canadian side did follow summer hours through Oct. 31 last year.
Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Alan Bersin and U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced at a town hall meeting in Havre Aug. 25 that the summer hours would be extended again.
Bersin said the hours would be used through Oct. 31 this year, and again run from March 1 through Oct. 31 next year.
Information from the office of Bersin and from Canadian Border Services about Canadian plans on the hours was not available by deadline this morning.
Mike Milne, Montana press officer for Customs and Border Protection, acknowledged that the Canadian Border Service Agency has not mirrored the extension, but said Customs and Border Protection is working to promote the extension on its side.
“Our push is that we are extending the hours ,which makes the southbound traffic available through those extended times,” he said. “That will make available more options for the growing energy business in Alberta.”
Len Mitzel, member of the Legislative Assembly in Alberta, said he will be contacting the Canadian border agency to find out why the summer hours are not being used.
“I’m surprised that they haven’t followed through yet,” he said. “If they don’t, it certainly wont be for lack of trying.”
A representative of the office of U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, who was an ardent supporter of expanding Wild Horse to a 24-hour commercial port at the Aug. 25 Havre meeting, said Customs and Border Protection is continuing to negotiate with the Canadian officials about extending the hours, and that he will continue to push the issue as well.
Rep. Denny Rehberg said he will continue to work with Customs and Border Protection to make sure American’s voices and desires are heard.
“While Montanans weren't thrilled about wasting millions on a port that almost no one uses, they deserve a reasonable return on the investment for the ports that are used,” Rehberg said. “That means working with the Canadians to extend hours of operation where feasible and ensure that if the American side of the port is open, that Canadian side is open as well.”
Walker said part of the problem is confusion in signage — the sign just north of Havre says the port is open 8 a.m. to 9 p.m., but doesn’t say that is for southbound traffic only.
The signage at Wild Horse itself also is confusing, he added. Signs warn of construction and trucks entering — an $8 million upgrade of U.S. facilities there is under way — and another sign indicates the road is closed in the northbound lane. But nothing says the Canadian side is closed while the U.S. side still is open, Walker said.
He said he thought the lane was closed for construction and he pulled into the other lane, looking for someone to talk to, which led to the U.S. officials confronting him and his wife.
“It’s very deceiving up there, the way things are signed,” he said.