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Border blues New travel rules are hurting binational trade, tourism

With the experience of our first summer tourism season behind us since the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative went into full effect, it's time to review its impacts. The WHTI is a congressional mandate designed to protect our borders and came out of the 9/1 1 Commission. Its worthy goal is to assure that folks entering the United States can document who they are and their citizenship.

Many have referred to the initiative as the passport law, but as it stands now a traditional passport booklet is one of eight accepted documents. And actually, it is the least preferred of the lot.

The purpose of the WHTI is to make sure no bad guys enter our nation and do harm to its citizens. However, ever since the idea was raised several years ago, it has exacted a heavy toll on trade and tourism around U.S.-Canada border regions. Since the proposal of the WHTI in 2004, even the discussion of its final version caused a significant decline in border-crossing trips. And when it actually went into full effect on June 1, the drop was dramatic.

The traffic numbers from just one crossing, the Peace Bridge, illustrate the cost of implementing these requirements. From August 2004 to August 2009, automotive traffic in and out of Canada via the Peace Bridge dropped 14.2 percent. That's 94,000 fewer cars -- probably a quarter million fewer people -- crossing to visit malls, restaurants, theaters, museums, etc.

The tour bus picture is tragic. During the same period, overall bus traffic (roughly 95 percent tour buses) is down 10 percent. The big drop came after June 1, when bus traffic plummeted from 3,312 last August to 2,654 this August. That's 658 fewer buses at this one crossing in one month. If there is an average of 45 people on each tour bus, that's nearly 30,000 people; and we know every one of those missing is a tourist.

Don't forget this is happening all along the northern border. Add it up and we are talking about the loss of hundreds of thousands of tourists and business people every month, which means hundreds of millions of dollars out of the economies of our two nations annually.

So what can we do to ease the impact of the travel initiative on trade and tourism and the tens of thousands of jobs these sectors support?

From the beginning, those proposing this legislation resisted discussion of any alternative to the traditional passport booklet. Ultimately, thanks largely to our northern border congressional delegation, options were developed (see left).

That's a good thing because a traditional passport booklet needs to be handed over to a border guard who then physically swipes it through a document reader. The alternatives all contain radio frequency technology, which eliminates the need for the border guard to handle them. This means that the traditional passport book is actually the slowest form of acceptable documentation. Our passport agencies should move to replace these out-of-date documents but in the meantime, they should be promoting the alternatives.

>NEXUS card

Alternatives for crossing the border include a NEXUS card, available to U.S. and Canadian trusted travelers. With radio frequency and eye scan technology this is the top-level documentation for the northern border. This program requires a face-to-face meeting with U.S. and Canadian border protection officers and an in-depth background check. It is inexpensive, $50 for five years, and offers many advantages.

Once you have NEXUS, crossing the U.S./Canadian border is a snap. Holders can access special lanes at many border crossings and at a few airports where they can pass with minimum delay. NEXUS requirements should be harmonized with the very similar FAST program that is used by truckers. And if we are serious about expanding this important trusted traveler program, we should provide NEXUS holders easy access lines at all U.S. and Canadian airports. It would reduce wait time for everyone and give airport screeners more time to deal with other travelers. If our goal is increased security, NEXUS is the answer.

It's hard to understand why any person crossing the border regularly would delay applying for NEXUS. Having NEXUS greatly reduces crossing times in both directions and makes one's life much simpler. The U.S. Department of State did a survey and statistical analysis of the 129 million border crossings in 2003. It determined that 23 million individuals made these 129 million crossings. But almost half -- 48 percent of the crossings -- were made by just 460,000 or roughly 2 percent of the 23 million people. Further, 61 percent of the crossings were made by roughly 1.8 million, only 8 percent of the people.

Imagine our borders if most of those 460,000 people had NEXUS cards. They would sail through the special lanes coming and going, giving our border protection agents more time to deal with the rest of the folks in the regular lines. It seems like a no-brainer.

Yet only about 350,000 NEXUS cards have been issued to date. Why? Like so many other things, it's all about location, location, location. There simply aren't enough NEXUS locations. We need more dedicated NEXUS lanes and more NEXUS sign-up locations on both sides of the border. And we need to promote this alternative. The U.S. and Canadian governments should set a goal to push the number of NEXUS card holders to more than a million.

>Enhanced driver's license

While there are other border-crossing documents, for average folks it's the enhanced driver's license. Having this option available and recognized at our borders is a giant step forward. Now available in a handful of states and Canadian provinces, hopefully it will soon be offered across the United States and Canada. In New York State it's cheap, just a $30 premium over a regular license for eight years -- less than $4 a year.

Unfortunately it's not as easy to get as it should be. The Erie County Auto Bureau has done a lot of outreach and offers a convenient portal, but even if you have a valid driver's license you need five additional "required proofs" to get an enhanced license in New York. You don't need that many to get a passport.

Ontario offers enhanced licenses, but it has done little to promote them. Nor is it making it particularly easy to get them either. There are only a handful of enhanced license locations across the vast provincial landscape, just one in St. Catharines for all of the Niagara Peninsula. And while officials on the U.S. side have installed advanced technology to read NEXUS, passport cards and enhanced driver's licenses, Canadian border officials have been slow to do so. This factor adds to backups for everyone headed into Canada.

>Passports -- book or card

Getting a passport is pretty straightforward, as is the newly created passport card. Go to any post office or online to find and fill out the necessary form. Take it in person (along with a couple of pictures, your birth certificate and some documentation) to any of the more than 7,000 locations nationwide -- post offices, town halls etc. -- that accept applications, and your passport book or card will arrive in the mail within a few weeks. Many post offices now also can take the pictures for you.

The new passport cards are the same size as a credit card, making them easier to carry. But while the cards provide faster processing at the border than the book, they are not yet accepted for travel outside of the Western Hemisphere.

The fastest way to get either type of passport is to visit a U.S. Passport Agency office. There are almost two dozen offices scattered around the nation, but there are only two on the border with our largest trading partner, Canada. This needs to change and our congressional delegation is making every effort to have Passport Agency offices opened near the Canadian border. We need Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to make it happen. Passports are a function of the State Department, her turf.

>Private sector

While we need action from the applicable government agencies to make it easier to get the appropriate documents, we need action from the private sector as well. Those with a specific interest in trade and tourism -- as well as those genuinely interested in economic development -- need to step up and support expansion of trusted traveler programs. They need to underwrite efforts to offer financial support to help folks meet the cost of NEXUS, as well as state and provincial enhanced driver's license upgrades. It's the smart thing to do.

>Dedicated lanes

Finally, we need to continue infrastructure improvements at border crossings. Border traffic is down, but increased security demands have added to processing time and border delays. We need to create dedicated lanes for NEXUS and FAST card holders. We need more primary inspection booths and lanes to separate cars and trucks and speed up processing.

Recent improvements at Fort Erie, Ont.; Champlain; Blaine, Wash.; and Sweetgrass, Mont., show that border crossings can be designed to facilitate quick crossings while maintaining security. In Queenston, Ont., trucks approaching the United States are separated from cars three miles from the border. Trucks are then split into FAST and non-FAST lanes so that the precleared FAST trucks are not held up by non-FAST trucks.

In Blaine, Wash., the NEXUS lane starts several miles before the border, providing trusted travelers the fast lane they deserve.

With the additional cost of WHTI-compliant documents, crossing the border has gotten more expensive. We need to see a return on that additional investment.


Patrick J. Whalen is chief operating officer of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus. He founded and operated an international cross-border logistics firm, and is a board member of the Can/Am Border Trade Alliance. He also is a board member of the Binational Tourism Alliance and a number of other trade and civic organizations.


Document requirements

United States citizens (require one of the following)

U.S. passport card

Enhanced driver's license

Military ID card - with orders

U.S. passport

NEXUS card

FAST card


U.S. Merchant Mariner card in conjunction with official maritime business

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