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Push to expand Wild Horse border crossing continues

An international committee again is working to expand operations of a border crossing north of Havre, trying to increase connections between Montana and its Hi-Line and the hot Alberta economy, including its massive energy operations.

The Wild Horse Border Committee is organizing a request to expand hours of operations at the Port of Wild Horse north of Havre, with a major goal of setting a three-year pilot program of expanded hours instead of going year-by-year to set a longer period of summer hours.

"We're not able, with the last-minute changes, we're not even getting the word out that it's going to be open, " Havre Mayor Tim Solomon, co-chair of the committee, said Friday. "So, we're working on trying to get a three-year pilot. "

Nearly 10 years ago, then-Havre Mayor Bob Rice formed, with then-Medicine Hat, Alberta, Mayor Garth Vallely, the border committee, which the two co-chaired. The committee, responding primarily to requests from businesses including freight-hauling and oil businesses in Alberta, has worked to have the federal governments on both sides of the border expand operations at Wild Horse to 24-hour-a-day commercial status.

The port now is open from 8 a. m. to 5 p. m. in the winter, with 8 a. m. to 9 p. m. summer hours from May 15 through Sept. 30.

Commercial vehicles must obtain a permit to haul freight through the port. The only 24-hour commercial port in operation between Montana and Alberta now is the Port of Sweetgrass-Coutts north of Shelby, on Interstate 15.

The committee has successfully called for trial periods with the summer hours running for longer periods, shooting for March 1 through Oct. 31, but has had many fits and hiccups in the process.

In several years of the trial periods, the Canadian Border Service Agency did not fully match the U. S. Customs and Border Protection expansion of hours, meaning vehicles could use the extended hours coming into the United States but not into Canada.

Then, last year, CBP originally said it would not extend the period of summer hours, then turned around and started using the hours April 5 through Oct. 31.

Solomon, who co-chairs the committee with Medicine Hat Mayor Norm Boucher, said he is working to set a meeting between the Montana and Alberta members to draft a request to send to the federal officials on both sides of the border, requesting the hours be extended.

The members of Montana's congressional delegation, as well as Alberta lawmakers, have been supportive of the efforts.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., in 2007 sponsored a bill directing CBP to upgrade the port, and has worked to get extended summer hours there.

Sen. Max Baucus also has worked to support the port upgrade, including proposing a pilot project in the Customs Authorization Bill to select three ports to upgrade to 24-hour commercial status, which could have applied to Wild Horse. The Senate finance committee, which Baucus chairs, works on the Customs authorization bill.

Baucus and Tester also discussed the idea at a Havre meeting with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and then-Commissioner of Customs and Border Protection Alan Bersin when they came to Montana to look at the border.

Spokespeople for the senators said those efforts will continue.

"As chairman of the finance committee, Max will be leading the charge on the Customs reauthorization this Congress, and extended hours for the Port of Wild Horse will be an important part of that push, " Jennifer Donohue said.

Andrea Helling, of Tester's office, said he also will continue to work to improve traffic across the border.

"He was proud of his successful efforts to extend the port hours and of his work to bring Acting CBP Commissioner Alan Bersin and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to Havre. " Helling said. "Jon looks forward to having a productive conversation with the community about new ideas to maximize our trade opportunities with Canada. "

The traffic last summer was down.

CPB figures show that, between March and October, passenger vehicle traffic dropped about 7 percent from the same months in 2011, down to 14,594 from 2011's 16,076.

The number of commercial vehicles dropped closer to 30 percent, from 1,777 to 1,231.

But Solomon and Paul Tuss, executive director of Bear Paw Development Corp. in Havre and a member of the committee, said not being able to guarantee when trucks — and passenger vehicles — can pass is a major obstacle.

Both said having guaranteed hours for a longer period would help in advertising those hours.

Tuss said that, whether a longer pilot is established or the summer hours again are extended, the committee needs to know as soon as possible.

"Education and communication is key, and, obviously, the earlier you can do that the better for everybody, " he said.

Tuss also commended work CBP has done in the last few years letting people, groups and businesses — particularly freight-hauling companies — know what are the hours, and the procedures for getting a permit to haul freight.

The Alberta and Havre chambers of commerce — Havre Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Debbie Vandeberg is a member of the Wild Horse committee — also have worked to promote the summer hours, once they know the times they will be used.

Tuss said having a multi-year pilot — as advocated by Alberta's Member of Parliament LaVar Payne — would give a true test of extending the hours.

"(Payne) really thought the fits and starts (in extending hours on both sides of the border), that there's been so much confusion and inconsistency, that his take, and I think it's the correct one, is that if we had a consistent pilot project that would last not one year but three years on both sides, it's going to be a far better snapshot with what's possible with this particular border crossing, " Tuss said.

Wild Horse upgrade supporter Bob Sivertson also is taking action to build support for the effort. Sivertson said he and counterparts in Alberta have been circulating letters to businesses on both sides of the border for the businesses to sign in support of holding an across-the-border meeting between CBP and its counterpart, CBSA.

Sivertson said that, from the start, he has said the crossing will not be upgraded immediately to a 24-hour commercial port. He said he wants to see a multi-year, year-long extension of hours. The intent of the letters is to get a meeting to advance that, he said.

"We would like to take and get something going before spring, " he said. "When we get those letters back, we will request (the federal lawmakers to) help us reconnect (with the federal agencies). "

Tuss said he was not familiar with Sivertson's effort, but that any work to get the word out and increase cooperation between the federal agencies is beneficial.

Solomon also said Sivertson and his group did not contact the Wild Horse committee, and that he is not clear on the purpose of the letters or the proposed meeting.

"That's kind of something he's doing on his own, " Solomon said.

Work progressing on upgrading Highway 2

While efforts progress to upgrade hours and status — and increase traffic — at the Port of Wild Horse north of Havre on the Canadian border, work also is progressing to upgrade the highway that runs through Havre.

Highway 2 Association President Bob Sivertson, a champion of upgrading U. S. Highway 2 to four lanes across the state, said in a recent interview he was working to arrange meetings with Gov. Steve Bullock and new Montana Department of Transportation Director Mike Tooley to talk about that effort.

"We will visit with them and see if we can't make some progress on Highway 2, " Sivertson said. "Bring those folks up to speed and get them up to speed. "

The first effort to widen Highway 2 to four lanes, a requirement under a Montana Senate bill passed in 2001, failed. That project, looking at improvements between Havre and Fort Belknap, was proposed as the first four-lane project for the highway. Under the administration of Gov. Judy Martz and Transportation Director Dave Galt, the Federal Highway Administration approved an expanded two-lane with wider lanes and shoulders and intermittent passing and turning lanes instead.

Another project is under way. Gov. Brian Schweitzer pushed for expanding the highway in sections from North Dakota. That state has completed widening the highway to four lanes across its territory.

The first project, widening the highway from the North Dakota border to Culbertson, has begun with completion of work on one two-lane portion of highway from the border to Bainville.

Lori Ryan, public information officer at MDT, said the department is working on acquiring rights of way to start construction on the second set of lanes for that project.

"(We) are continuing to move forward with closing parcels, " she said.

MDT also is working on moving forward with work on the highway from Havre to the section of improved two-lane completed in 2011. That project will build a five-lane road, four lanes and a center turning lane, from 22nd Avenue to the start of the improved two-lane near Pork Chop Hill east of Havre.

 

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