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AREA BUSINESS LEADERS OPPOSED TO CANADIAN BORDER PASSPORT PLAN

Hours before President Bush on Thursday ordered a review of the proposal to require Americans and Canadians to have passports to cross the border from Canada into the United States, local business leaders outlined their reasons for opposing the idea.

At a Buffalo Niagara Partnership event Thursday morning, business leaders criticized the local impact of the passport proposal.

"It's a quality of life issue for this region. I don't think the people in Washington realize how important border crossings are," said Andrew J. Rudnick, the president of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, on Thursday morning, hours before Bush spoke.

"We cross the border every day for our quality of life reasons. It's one of our competitive advantages," he said to a group of local business leaders who are part of the Partnership's Buffalo Niagara Now initiative to make the region's economy more competitive.

Patrick Whalen, the president of PJW Transportation Services and a leader of the initiative's efforts to make border crossings easier, said the passport requirement was a "curveball" that could set back efforts to bolster trade between the two nations.

Rather than requiring that Americans and Canadians have a passport to enter the United States, beginning in 2008, Whalen said other forms that provide proof of citizenship, including driver's licenses and cards for the NEXUS automated preclearance system, should be acceptable alternatives.

While most of the attention has focused on passports, the proposed mandate from the state Department also said "another accepted document" could meet the requirement, without saying what those were.

Officials worry that requiring passports would snare commerce and also stop many residents of southern Ontario and the Buffalo Niagara region from making day trips across the border because of the added cost of the required documentation. New passports cost $97 for adults and $82 for children younger than 16. NEXUS passes cost $50.

"We need a border that is as open, flexible and fluid as possible," Rudnick said. "Our economy, on the tourism side, is tied to the fluidity of movement."

Rudnick said Canadians made 3.8 million visits to New York in 2003, which was a 70 percent increase from 2002, and spent more than $392 million in the state. The passport requirement would be a major blow to the Buffalo Sabres and the Buffalo Bills, which depend on selling a significant number of tickets to fans in southern Ontario. It also would hurt major tourism developments now being planned, including the Bass Pro project in Buffalo, he said.

About 13.2 million individuals enter the United States each year by driving cars across the Niagara River bridges. Another 1.3 million cross the river on buses and 37,000 more take a train across the region's railroad bridges.

e-mail: drobinson@buffnews.com

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