A decision by the Canadian agency that runs the country’s border operations to not mirror U.S. action to extend summer hours at the Port of Wild Horse, north of Havre, has raised some ire in U.S. — and Canadian — officials.
A U.S. senator has sent a letter about the issue to the prime minister of Canada.
The issue causes some problems for local officials as well.
“Definitely, we need to have it open both ways to get the traffic,” Havre Mayor Tim Solomon, co-chair of the Wild Horse Border Committee, said this morning. He said that a bipartisan group is meeting in Medicine Hat Nov. 16 to talk about expanding border hours and will talk about this issue then.
“We’ll (work with) the people up there to pressure the ones that need it to make the decision,” he said.
U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano and Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Alan Bersin announced during a meeting in Havre in August that a trial expansion of summer hours would take place this fall and start again next spring.
Normally, the port is open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., with summer hours of 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. running May 15 through Sept. 30.
Last year, the summer hours were used from March 1 through Oct. 31, although Canada did not mirror that until the normal start date of Mary 15. The Canadian side did use the summer hours through Oct. 31 last year.
A group including businessmen, organizations and elected leaders from Montana and Alberta have been pushing for six years to have the port upgraded to 24-hour-a-day operations, and from a permit-only port to a commercial port. That will better link and stimulate the Havre-area and Albertan economy, they say.
A representative of Canada Border Services Agency, which oversees border operations for the nation, told the Havre Daily News that traffic numbers do not justify extending the hours, and the winter hours will be used through May 14.
“We will monitor and evaluate traffic volumes based on the expansion of the U.S. summer operating hours. Should there be a significant increase, we will re-evaluate the situation,” said Communications Officer Lisa White of Calgary. “2009, CBSA and CBP extended its seasonal hours at the Wild Horse port of entry — we monitored traffic volumes during that time and found the volumes did not support continued expansion of seasonal hours. In fact, there was a decrease of commercial traffic during October 2009.”
Requests for comments from U.S. Customs and Border Protection had not been answered by deadline this morning.
LaVar Payne, Cyprus-Medicine Hat’s representative to the Canadian parliament, said this morning he is disappointed by the agency’s decision.
“For me, it’s quite frustrating. Particularly when we talk about the positive aspects for both countries from an economic aspect particularly when Alberta has only one 24-hour port,” he said. “Alberta is drving the economy of Canada. It’s not just Medicine Hat, it’s not just Alberta”
He said he is working to arrange a meeting with the Canadian prime minister and the director of the country’s border agency to discuss the issue.
The problem he sees is the bureaucracy, Payne said.
“I could have written (the statement) myself from memory,” he said. “It’s basically the same comments they make all the time. I’m not surprised.
“I’m disappointed they are not mirroring the hours,” he added. “It makes absolutely no sense to me.”
Len Mitzel, member of Alberta’s Legislative Assembly for Medicine Hat, took issue with CBSA’s statement. He was critical of Canada for not extending the hours earlier in the season and failing to promote it.
“It is very disconcerting that the present situation does not allow for mirroring the hours on both sides of the border,” he said. “The comment regarding monitoring for 2009 is not substantiated by facts that take into consideration both the awareness by the motoring public and trucking companies, as well as happening in a time when there is a severe downturn in the economy.”
“I am very hopeful that this all will be recognized and rectified and we move positively toward a 24-hour port operation,” Mitzel added.
Montana’s U.S. Sen. Max Baucus said he will continue to work closely with people on the Hi-Line to make the pilot project a success.
“I'm disappointed that the Canadian Border Services Agency decided not to reciprocate the extended summer hours of operation for the Port of Wild Horse this year,” Baucus said. “In this tough economy, we need to do everything we can to promote trade and good paying jobs in Montana. For me, that's job number one.”
U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., told the Havre Daily News last week that while he did not support spending millions of dollars on upgrading a port nobody used in Montana, if hours are changed that will improve operations and stimulate the economy the change needs to be matched on both sides.
Rehberg did not return requests for comment this week on the CBSA decision to not mirror the extension.
U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., sent a letter to the prime minister of Canada discussing the Wild Horse decision, as well as Canada deciding to close its side of the port of entry north of Whitetail despite knowing the U.S. was working to upgrade its facilities there.
“This decision cost American taxpayers and reduced cross-border access to eastern Montana and to Saskatchewan,” Tester wrote to Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
He later wrote that he hoped Canada would participate in the Wild Horse hours extension to try to expand trade, which has remained strong between Montana and Canada despite the recession.
“Canada is our largest export market, and Canada-Montana bilateral trade approached $5 billion last year,” Tester wrote. We particularly appreciate more than 500,000 tourist visits from Canada to Montana each year.
“However, these recent actions have the potential to have a chilling effect on trade between Montana and Canada,” he added. “I urge you to reconsider CBSA’s position on Wild Horse as soon as possible.”
Solomon said those actions from officials like Baucus, Tester, Mitzel and Payne could help the situation.
“That’s exactly the kind of pressure that we’ll assist with,” he said.