Gregoire calls anticipated border waits ‘unacceptable’
Washington State Governor Christine Gregoire may have pioneered a state driver’s license pilot program earlier this year, but it won’t be of much help if commuters face mile-long waits at the border.
During a visit to several Whatcom County locations Thursday, Gregoire praised Washington’s growing economy – recently listed by Forbe’s Magazine as the top fifth in the nation to do business – but called the looming traffic congestion as a result of the General Services Administration’s planned Peace Arch Port of Entry reconstruction “unacceptable.”
Gregoire, who was speaking at a Ferndale restaurant after a tour with city and county officials of the city’s waterfront, said while her office wasn’t aware of the “painful” waits anticipated by border agencies, she called the situation “unacceptable to our economy” and would pursue the matter further through dialogue with the GSA.
“Canada isn’t just another country to us – they’re not even neighbors in some respects – they’re our good friends,” she said. “We hop up there for a day and come back down and that’s what led us to the development of a state driver’s license without the cost and wait of a passport. But it will be of no purpose if you can’t even get up there because of one lane.”
The construction of the new Peace Arch Port of Entry facility is scheduled to begin as soon as October and will last until 2010, just weeks before the start of the Winter Olympics scheduled to take place near Vancouver, B.C.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection agencies will continue to operate out of the existing facility until the end of 2009, when the new facility is completed, but as soon as construction starts, portions of the facility will need to be closed, starting with the west side primary inspection lanes in October.
Following that, officials say southbound lanes will be narrowed to one regular lane and NEXUS lane to handle the 3,500 average traffic trips per day during winter months. James Rector, the Blaine area assistant port director, however, told The Northern Light that because of the rise in the value of the Canadian dollar, it is likely traffic trips will be as high as 5,500 per day – on par with peak season averages.
New truck route lanes could ease congestion
Washington State Department of Transportation (DOT) officials, meanwhile, said although they are not the lead agency involved with the reconstruction, they have made a number of efforts to help mitigate the impacts to travelers.
Dustin Terpening, a spokesperson for the DOT’s Burlington office said those mitigation measures include the installation of “intelligent travel systems” or ITS which broadcast border wait times for all Whatcom County crossings, moving the project ahead of schedule and opening three northbound lanes and two southbound lanes at the truck crossing before the GSA starts its construction of the Peace Arch crossing facility.
One of those northbound lanes will be dedicated to truck traffic, which will further ease the traffic by removing large trucks from vehicle lanes. That lane will split off before the duty free store and then into two lanes before it runs to commercial inspection booths.
“For the past year, we’ve had cars and semi trucks in the same lane,” said Todd Harrison, assistant regional administrator, with the DOT’s Burlington office, “and when we get the new lanes open, the passenger cars will be able to pass through more easily, so it will be a more viable option.”
He added that if all goes well, D Street should open shortly after that, followed by continued work such as painting, striping, lighting installation, camera wiring, planting and minor detail work. The entire project is expected to be completed by summer of 2008.
In a regular city council meeting Monday, city manager Gary Tomsic said he had also scheduled a conference call with GSA officials to organize a community liaison group regarding the project during the next two years.
Tomsic added that the construction could not have happened at a worse time, as the dollar is on par with the loonie, and that he, too, would be interested to see if Gregoire can have an influence over the GSA’s decision to have only two open lanes.
All Point Bulletin reporter Meg Olson contributed to this story.