Published on Thu, Feb 22, 2007 by en Oplinger

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By Ken Oplinger

There are no two nations on earth who are as closely tied, physically, economically, socially and culturally, than the US and Canada.

And yet, recent changes in law by the U.S. federal government appear to be doing more to drive us apart than anything in recent memory.

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 necessitated a change in American thinking and relationships vis-à-vis even its closest neighbors. The December 2004 adoption of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act, including the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, in many ways reflected recommendations made by the 9/11 Commission on how to prevent future attacks. WHTI calls for the requirement of “a passport or other document, or combination of documents, deemed by the Secretary of Homeland Security to be sufficient to denote identity and citizenship, for all travel into the United States.”

Unfortunately, it appears that the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department are setting out to implement WHTI with little or no regard for the impacts on communities like ours. Instead of seeking to work with all interested parties on a mutually agreeable solution which would balance security and our economy, we are seeing implementation occur in such a manner as to limit cross border traffic, make transit of goods and people more difficult, and in the end, harm the relationship between our two great countries.

By way of background, let me explain for a moment the economic ties we share, beyond Canadians coming to Blaine for gas and cheese.

Our two nations share the largest trading relationship in the world. This relationship is felt not only along the 5,500 mile long border region, where 55 million Americans and 30 million Canadians reside, but in every state in the union. The movement of people and goods over the border ads $1.2 billion a day to the U.S. economic engine, and supports 5.2 million jobs.

Trade between the two countries has climbed at nearly double-digit rates each year since North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) implementation in 1994, and economic development means more cross-border employment, tourism and recreation.

By trade volume alone, the Ambassador Bridge is the busiest border crossing in the world, carrying 25 percent of the value of trade between the U.S. and Canada. Along the U.S. northern border, crossings in Michigan, New York and Washington combined account for nearly 90 percent of total northern border volume.

Respectively, the Detroit, Niagara and Cascade crossings account for $450 million, $160 million and $40 million in U.S./Canadian trade value per day.

Failure to carefully implement WHTI not only threatens travel and tourism: it also threatens industries like manufacturing, which, at the cost of over $1 million per hour (roughly $23,000 per minute), cannot afford disruptions in just-in-time inventories due to a poorly executed passenger travel program. Our analysis of past history and current action to date are evidence that various implementation problems are likely to arise.

In travel and tourism, our relationship is equally as important. While it is clear that northern border communities have a lot at stake in the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative debate, it may be surprising that many U.S. “sun belt” states have an even greater economic impact. In 2005, three of the top four beneficiaries of Canadian visits and spending were Nevada, California and Florida, with Florida receiving more than double that of any other state. All told, last year Canadians made over 53 million visits to the U.S. and spent (conservatively) over $10 billion.

So, we are important to each other, in many ways. How, then, will WHTI cause problems in our long term relationship?

Lack of awareness equals lack of preparedness: According to a Zogby International Poll commissioned by the BESTT Coalition, neither Americans nor Canadians are familiar with proposed documentation changes along the border. Of Americans, 87 percent say they are either not familiar (59 percent) or somewhat familiar (28 percent) with change in requirements. Of Canadians, 82 percent are say they are either not very (40 percent) or somewhat familiar (42 percent). Non-passport holders from both countries are least likely to be at all familiar.
If people are not aware of the policy requirement, they are likely to attempt crossing the border without proper documentation, delaying themselves and those behind them, including trucks carrying time-sensitive shipments.

Lack of time equals lack of quality: WHTI gave implementing agencies three years to put in place new documentation plan that covers nearly 8,000 miles of border (northern and southern) and affects millions of people. While air was partially implemented on January 23, land will be implemented between January 2008 and June 2009.

The dual implementation dates and the lack of a set date for land implementation are confusing to most people. Even The Northern Light recently published a headline for air implementation giving us the impression the rule was set for all crossings, including land. Recently AMTRAK announced (and then renounced, upon being informed following efforts of a BESTT supporter) that all passengers would need passports to cross the land border, thinking this was the policy that would be in place by the end of the year. Neither the policy announcement nor the timing was correct.

Another concern is that, taking into account the scope of the WHTI project and the DHS track record with other, arguably less-major projects, it is very unlikely they will be able to put in place such an ambitious program without implementation gaps and cost overruns. In order to provide a document other than just a passport to cross the border, DHS has come up with the PASS Card.

This card, however, is not being implemented with the help of the Canadian government, and would not be available to Canadian citizens. In addition, the track record of implementing such cards is not great. Here are but two examples:

• Federal Government SMART Card – this document for government workers is being rolled out across various federal departments and with various timelines. Despite this, the program has faced delays and great debate of technology capabilities.

The cards originally were issued to millions of Department of Defense workers but with no technology to actually read them. We fear similar outcomes along the U.S./Canada border, where policymakers are able to meet the letter of the law and documentation issuance without satisfying the intent.

• Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC) – cards are intended for 850,000 port, dock, transit and other transportation workers.

DHS announced last year that it was seeking contractors after months of delay. This project began three years ago and had opportunity for two prototype evaluations. WHTI has no opportunity for a pilot or testing of prototypes.

These are just a few of many examples where DHS and the State Department have encountered implementation problems with broad-based programs. There are many others that may or may not relate to identity but certainly to national security.

Given this history, I have no reason to believe that the PASS Card program can actually be fully and thoughtfully deployed under currently mandated time frames, and there is no mechanism for reporting to policymakers any difficulties that may be encountered along the way.

So why not just have everyone get a passport? With the cost of a passport at US $97 and CDN$87, plus the time it takes to apply, it is unreasonable to think that everyone can and will simply get a passport. As of now, only 27 percent of Americans and 40 percent of Canadians currently have passports.

In Whatcom County, if we are generous and double the number of people who potentially have passports, that would mean half of Whatcom County’s citizens would not be able to visit the lower mainland.

The BESTT Coalition, with which I am affiliated, believes use of drivers’ licenses is the best answer to WHTI. It is essential that a new border-crossing program involve documents that people already carry with them, otherwise, many will not be inclined to go through the hassle or cost of getting an alternative document. Further, we understand through various conversations that the Canadian government is eager to explore alternatives to the PASS card, with a drivers’ license concept among them.

There is precedent for state and federal governments to work together on citizenship and identity issues. That is why the BESTT Coalition was formed, a group co-chaired by the Detroit Regional Chamber, the Buffalo Niagara Partnership and the Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber of Commerce. It is a northern border coalition comprising some 100 businesses, chambers of commerce, associations, government entities and others representing 10 states and five provinces in the U.S. and Canada. We seek smart implementation of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, and will continue to do so as we travel time and again across both countries.

In the end, we must address legitimate security concerns. However, we must also ensure that the unique relationship between the US and Canada is preserved and allowed to grow, for the benefit of both countries.