Officials from New York State and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security will meet next week to begin work on a high-tech driver's license that travelers could use instead of a passport at Canadian border crossings.
Plans for that effort were made at a meeting Thursday involving Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and the state's top federal lawmakers.
The governor and the lawmakers said the meeting left them more optimistic that passports will not be required at the Canadian border.
"The good news here is that they really do seem amenable for the first time to allowing a substitute for passports that would have the same security, but would be a lot easier and more convenient," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y.
Chertoff -- who revealed his willingness to consider the driver's license proposal while visiting Buffalo last month -- rushed off without making detailed comments about the meeting, held in Rep. Louise M. Slaughter's office in the Capitol.
But Chertoff did say, "So now we're working to see whether we can find a way to accommodate the traffic in Buffalo."
Spitzer said he had no idea how long it would take to develop a driver's license that would work as a passport alternative. But state and federal officials will be working against the clock, since Chertoff has said passports will be required at Canadian border crossings by the middle of next year.
"What we need from the federal government is clarity as to what they will accept," Spitzer said. "We're hoping we can get this done quickly because the [Western New York] economy in particular is intensely dependent on that cross-border traffic."
The enhanced driver's license probably will be modeled on the one being developed in a similar pilot program in Washington State. New York could phase in the issuance of such licenses, beginning in Western New York, Spitzer said.
Homeland Security officials indicated the driver's license program would cost less than New York officials had expected. But Spitzer made clear that he expected the federal government to pay.
"We are going to be very demanding of the federal government in terms of getting the financial means that will be required here," Spitzer said.
The other lawmakers who attended the meeting -- Slaughter, D-Fairport, and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y. -- said they were encouraged by what Chertoff said. But they also voiced caution over an issue that has transfixed yet stymied the local congressional delegation in recent years.
"I feel there could be a light at the end of the tunnel," Slaughter said. "We're ahead of where we were. But there are still more questions than answers."
Clinton agreed, saying: "We did make some progress, or at least it sounded like progress. But the proof's in the pudding. We've heard this before. We want to see exactly what they will approve."