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U.S. eyes fee at land border crossings

WASHINGTON – The federal government is considering imposing a fee on passenger vehicles and pedestrians crossing the Canadian and Mexican borders.

The Department of Homeland Security suggested studying the imposition of such a fee in its fiscal 2014 budget proposal, which was released last week. But the idea attracted little notice until Thursday, when Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, lashed out at the idea as a potential killer of cross-border business.

“At a time when we are looking to increase economic activity at our northern border, we should not be authoring proposals that would do the reverse,” Higgins said in a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.

Not much is known about exactly what the border fee would entail. Sy Lee, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, said the study would take a look at how much the fee might be.

A land border levy would not be the first such fee that Homeland Security has imposed on travelers, however. Airline passengers currently pay a $2.50 security fee, which is incorporated into ticket prices, every time they step onto a plane.

Higgins asked Napolitano about the possible border fee at a Homeland Security Committee hearing Thursday, but she appeared unfamiliar with the proposal.

“Let me look into that line item specifically for you,” she responded.

But in her written testimony for the hearing, Napolitano indicated that collecting some sort of fee at land borders would help pay for America’s massive effort to patrol its borders.

“Processing the more than 350 million travelers annually provides nearly $150 billion in economic stimulus, yet the fees that support these operations have not been adjusted in many cases for more than a decade,” Napolitano’s written testimony said.

“As the complexity of our operations continues to expand, the gap between fee collections and the operations they support is growing, and the number of workforce hours [that] fees support decreases each year.”

A border fee also would help the agency address a “staffing gap” at border crossings, the written testimony said.

Nevertheless, any effort to impose a land border fee is likely to face stiff opposition on both sides of the border.

The Canadian government, which only recently teamed with the Obama administration on a “Beyond the Border” plan to ease border traffic and promote trade, appears less than thrilled about the fee idea.

“It’s important to note that this is simply a study at this point,” said Chris Plunkett, a spokesman at the Canadian Embassy in Washington.

“But we’re confident that any study would conclude that the considerable economic damage any fee would do would greatly outweigh any revenue generated.”

Ron Rienas, general manager of the Peace Bridge, agreed. He said that much of that damage would happen on the American side, since 75 percent of those who crossed the Peace Bridge in the first three months of the year were Canadians bound for Buffalo.

“I’m obviously surprised to see this because it clearly will have a negative impact on the binational region,” he said.

In addition, the idea of a federal border fee raises huge logistical issues, Rienas said.

Homeland Security officials have not indicated whether the fee would be charged on traffic entering America or leaving it, although Higgins’ office presumes it would be collected at the points of departure from the U.S., since that’s where U.S. customs agents are stationed.

It’s also unclear whether customs agents would collect the new fee or if the toll-takers at the various border bridges would do it. But in either case, at the Peace Bridge, the only infrastructure for doing so is on the U.S. side of the bridge for people entering Canada.

“We don’t have toll infrastructure set up entering the U.S.,” Rienas said. “We only charge tolls entering Canada.”

Higgins said he was most worried, though, that any kind of fee would discourage cross-border travel and that fees would be collected at the Canadian border to subsidize the federal government’s much more expensive security operations at the Mexican border.

“Are they going to be using the northern border to subsidize operations on the southern border?” he asked.

Higgins vowed to be “very aggressive” in opposing any border-crossing fee.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said he is vehemently opposed as well.

“A secure and efficient border crossing is the lifeblood of the Western New York economy, and seeking to slap travelers here with onerous fees is a bad idea,” Schumer said. “We don’t need a study to tell us that.”