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Sequestration could slow Wild Horse upgrade

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., said in a telephone press conference Thursday that the federal budgeting process, with a focus on reducing deficit spending, and the implementation of across-the-board cuts, called sequestration, will make it more difficult to continue increasing hours at an international border crossing north of Havre, but the effort is not dead.

Tester reiterated his opposition to using across-the-board cuts to reducing deficits — he has repeatedly said targeted cuts, reducing or eliminating spending to specific projects or programs is better — and said the mandatory cuts will make it harder to push for projects like working on regional water projects, finding highway funding, projects like the effort to rehabilitate the St. Mary Diversion that supplies much of the water to the Milk River each year, and border security and trade issues like upgrading the Port of Wildhorse north of Havre on the Canadian border.

"That doesn't mean we're not going to do it," Tester added.

A U.S. Customs and Border Protection website today lists the hours at Wild Horse as its standard hours, with summer hours running from May 15 to Sept. 30 and its winter hours from Oct. 1 to May 14.

Havre Mayor Tim Solomon said this morning that the group he co-chairs is continuing to work on extended hours, with its current goal getting a three-year trial period with year-long extended hours.

Getting an extension of summer hours this year doesn't look possible, he said.

"That don't mean we're giving up," he said. "We're going to continue letting them know we are her

The international group Solomon chairs with the mayor of Medicine Hat Alberta, Norm Boucher, the Wild Horse Border Committee,has been pushing for some 10 years to have the Wild Horse Port upgraded to a 24-hour commercial port.

The port now has 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. winter hours and 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. summer hours, and truckers must apply for and receive a permit to carry commercial freight across the port.

Supporters say upgrading the port would give a straight shot to the strong economy in the Medicine Hat region as well as the tar sands in northeastern Alberta, and would significantly help the economy of this region.

Now the only 24-hour commercial port between Montana and Alberta is Sweetgrass-Coutts north of Shelby.

The groups have succeeded — sort of — in having extended summer hours, with more months of the longer hours, for several years, but with complications and mixed results. The summer hours in those years ran from March 1 to Oct. 31.

For several years, Canada did not fully mirror the extended hours, which meant that during the U.S. extension, users would have the extended hours coming into the United States, but the shorter winter hours to get into Canada.

Last year, Customs and Border Protection originally did not allow the hours extension. Then it announced May 3 that it would start the summer hours two weeks early and extend the hours to Oct. 31.

Both Tester and Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., joined the Wild Horse committee in lobbying CBP in extending the summer hours.

Tester said Thursday that having matching hours on both sides of the port, as well as having some consistency, is crucial to the project. He added that he is dissatisfied with projects by the Canadian government on the border — upgrades to border crossings on the Canadian side have been on the eastern end of the border, with little attention paid to Wild Horse or other western ports, he said.

CBP completed an upgrade to its Wild Horse facilities in 2011 as part of a nation-wide push to improve northern border facilities.

One kind of project could get a new source of funding, regardless of sequestration.

Baucus and Tester are continuing to push for a way to ensure funding of rural water projects like the Rocky Boy's/North Central Montana Regional Water System and the Fort Peck/Dry Prairie Regional Water System.

Baucus sent out a press release Thursday announcing that the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held a hearing this week on a bill first sponsored in 2011 by Baucus and cosponsored by Tester that would set up a fund to pay for authorized water projects like the North Central and Dry Prairie projects.

They have been joined by a Republican co-sponsor, Sen. John Hoeven of North Dakota.

"This is about one thing: jobs in rural America," Baucus testified Tuesday during the hearing. "It's about people who need water. This bill supports good-paying Montana jobs in the near term and allows rural communities to support business for the long haul. And, it doesn't add one thin dime to the deficit."

The bill would take $80 million of federal oil and gas royalties and proceeds from sale of power from federal hydroelectric dams that goes into the reclamation fund — generally $1 billion to $2 billion a year — and put it into a fund for authorized rural water projects.

 

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