Public asks for more tweaking on border designs
By Soren Velice
Citizens of Blaine and other communities packed the senior center last week to give the General Services Administration, the federal agency responsible for government facilities, direction in its plan to expand the Peace Arch point of entry.
The April 12 meeting was an effort to give Herrera, Inc., the consulting firm hired to draft the environmental impact statement (EIS), input for the documents scope. After meetings in the last year and a half revealed strong opposition to planning schemes that would encroach on Peace Arch State Park, the GSA went back to the drawing board to create options that expand south instead of east. One of those would close the current southbound off ramp and drop traffic into town at Third and D streets, while another would shorten the existing ramp by about 100 feet.
Before public comment, representatives from each of the three agencies that use the border facility made short presentations explaining their agencies missions and why they think a bigger building is in order. Pat Boetcher, INS port director for the Peace Arch point of entry, cited expanded demands on the space, ranging from the 1991 start of the PACE program to immigration courts semi-monthly hearings in the building. They prevent the entrance of criminal aliens that may pose a threat and are not allowed to enter to attend a hearing in Seattle, she said. She added every two weeks or so, INS stops somebody with a felony warrant.
Debbie Engels, a supervisory customs inspector, said her agencys duties of law enforcement and regulation of commercial entries are outgrowing the building. She said seizures are up 17 percent from 1998 to 1999, and marijuana smuggling increased 81 percent from 1999 to 2000. In the current facility violators are walked through the lobby of customs facilities; your safety and that of our employees is crucial, she said.
United States Department of Agriculture supervisor Susan Dublinski said criminals going through the lobby concern her as well. We are not armed, she said. Our staff works alongside people who may be arresting somebody who may be a bank robber. My people have to be aware theyre not law enforcement - in a conflict, they have to shuffle away. She said she was also concerned about pedestrian safety at the border; she explained when an R.V. has to be inspected, it has to park against a wall and the passengers have to cross four lanes of traffic. Its amazing no ones been hurt or killed, she said.
Much of the following public comment reinforced the position that expansion should leave Peace Arch State Park intact. Gail Sutton, representing the Canadian group Friends of Peace Arch Park, expressed her concern that the park be left intact. Were all concerned that the integrity of Peace Arch park on both sides be kept as is, she said. Buses of international visitors are making special trips from Vancouver and we hope what they came to see will still be there for them.
Whatcom County council member Barbara Brenner had several suggestions to reduce the impact on the park. Among them was expanding the building underground to keep the existing footprint. We have looked at that and we have determined we cant meet the needs of federal inspection services with the current footprint, said GSAs Kelly Sarver-Lenderink. She added GSA has to focus its efforts on existing infrastructure. We know this is a beautiful space, she said, but it happens that I-5 goes through this beautiful space.
Sarver - Lenderinks response made Brenner suspicious. When they say so strongly in the beginning theres no way you can stay in the footprint that exists, that says to me they already know what they want to do, she said after the meeting.
Brenner also suggested moving administrative functions to downtown Blaine or the truck crossing to free up more space, or turning the Peace Arch crossing into a PACE-only crossing while shifting all other traffic to Pacific Highway to lessen the load at Peace Arch.
Michael Levine, GSAs regional environmental program officer, added the agency is also considering taking some of the expansion toward the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) railroad tracks. Wed like to go in a more westward direction, he said. Where the train is now, they have four spurs where they have emergency equipment; the focus on the train is to find another spot for the emergency equipment. In initial discussions with BNSF, they were positive about that.
Other concerns aside from encroaching on the park included coordinating with Canada and addressing other modes of transportation. We have some other issues to throw into the mix, Surrey City Council member John Bose said. One of them would be high-speed rail and we need to look at a border facility to accommodate different needs. If anything is done too hastily, were going to lose the opportunity to do something quite creative, quite accommodating; my hope is you could move slow enough so Canada can get their act together and work on an international crossing.
Richard Sturgill, representing the Millennium Trail Committee, also wanted to address alternative transportation. I think its very important that whatever you build welcomes and takes into account foot and bike traffic and keeps it separate from motor vehicles, he said. SarverLenderink agreed the current crossing isnt very usable for pedestrians.
As often happens when border agencies open themselves to public comment in Blaine, the discussion turned to staffing border facilities. For the second time in 30 years were going to expand the facility, Blaine councilman John Liebert said. But are we going to have the resources to man the facility?
City manager Gary Tomsic presented a list of community concerns from a March 13 meeting, including impact on property values around a proposed parking lot, traffic impacts, freeway off-ramp options and compatibility of a new building with the surrounding scenery. We hope that you will design facilities that fit well into the natural and community setting, he said. We hope you can design something we can be proud of and consider an asset to our community.
Herrera environmental engineer John Meerscheidt saidthe comment period is still open. He added the EIS process still has a few steps to go. Well start working on the EIS in June, he said. Well come out with a draft environmental impact statement, get comment on that and come out with a final. Sarver-Lenderink said the building itself is still a ways off, pending the design of construction phases and funding. Well look for construction funding in 2004 or 2005, she said. With a project this size, just the phasing process can take one or two years.