U.S., Canada strike deal to speed border checks

Melissa Nann Burke, Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — Travel by roadway, rail and water between Michigan and Canada could become easier under a deal signed Monday by U.S. and Canadian officials.

The impact on crossings in the Great Lakes state is likely years away, though the effects could be felt sooner in other states if the U.S. Congress and Canadian Parliament approve it.

The proposed change could mean shifting some American customs inspections to the Canadian sides of the border crossings at Detroit and Port Huron, and allowing U.S. customs agents to carry weapons while stationed inside the Canadian border.

The deal — years in the making as part of the Beyond the Border Initiative — sets out a legal framework allowing law enforcement agents into each other’s countries to conduct customs, immigration and agricultural inspections inside the border. It is a process already in operation at eight Canadian airports, including Toronto.

“This agreement will help facilitate the legitimate trade and travel that keeps our economy thriving as we maintain utmost vigilance to the security of our borders,” U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said. “We remain committed to our deep partnership with Canada, a true ally, neighbor and friend of the United States.”

A new process for advance government screening of business shipments and individuals could relieve congestion and shave off time while traveling between the two countries, officials say.

Canadian Public Safety Minister Steve Blaney said the “historic” agreement builds on decades of successful pre-clearance operations in Canadian airports. About 4.5 million passengers traveling through Toronto airport now go through the pre-clearance process before traveling to the United States, Blaney said.

The administration of Gov. Rick Snyder welcomed the development with Michigan’s largest trading partner.

“It is extremely helpful for goods to move quickly across the border in a way that still protects residents in both countries,” Snyder spokesman Dave Murray said Monday, but noted the administration still needs to review the agreement.

The crossing between Detroit and Windsor is the busiest along the U.S.-Canada border, carrying more than 20 percent of all merchandise trade between the nations through the Ambassador Bridge and Detroit-Windsor Tunnel.

Detroit is also a popular crossing for travelers, last year ranking the third-busiest U.S.-Canada crossing for passenger vehicles with more than 4 million, behind Niagara Falls, New York, and Blaine, Washington, according to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics. Port Huron was the fourth-busiest crossing with more than 1.9 million passenger vehicles in 2014.

The agreement could cut valuable seconds and even minutes off getting across the border.

“It means the same number of officers at the border can process more trucks, and those officers can spend more time on those trucks who do require more attention,” said Douglas George, the Canadian consul general in Detroit. “Both our countries are very interested in ensuring there’s still a very high level of security.”

Maryscott Greenwood, an adviser to the Canadian American Business Council, said she expects arrangements for the Detroit-Windsor crossing would move quickly after the agreement receives legislative approval because of how busy and important it is.

“We’ve talked about pre-clearance at Detroit-Windsor for years because of how congested it is on the Detroit side, and how relatively less congested it is on the Windsor side,” Greenwood said.

“There’s always a complicated dance that you do in Detroit-Windsor with the various stakeholders, so that will remain to be seen,” she added, referring to the private ownership of the Ambassador Bridge.

The re-clearance operations would require approval by both Canada and the United States. Johnson said there will be “some negotiation” that goes into each border-crossing site, and “this agreement even spells that out.” The deal will be implemented at select sites “where it makes sense,” he said.

The trucking industry applauded the agreement as a step toward easing costs and increasing predictability at the border, although David Bradley, president and CEO of the Canadian Trucking Alliance, doesn’t see Detroit-Windsor as a top candidate for a pre-clearance site.

Buffalo-Fort Erie is a more likely site, in part because there’s no space for a modern customs plaza on the Buffalo side, and officials want to relocate inspections to the Fort Erie side, said Bradley, whose group represents more than 4,500 Canadian trucking companies.

“In Detroit-Windsor, you really don’t have that same sort of issue, and you certainly won’t with the new bridge,” Bradley said. “They’ll have a modern customs facility on both sides and the Ambassador Bridge doesn’t have the same land constraints that you have in Fort Erie and Buffalo.”

Last month, officials said Canada would pay to build a U.S. customs plaza on a new bridge connecting Detroit and Windsor while the U.S. finances its operations. The $2.1 billion New International Trade Crossing span over the Detroit River is to be built two miles south of the Ambassador Bridge by 2020.

U.S. Rep. Candice Miller, R-Harrison Township, supports the new agreement but called on the Obama administration to finish the long-delayed project to expand the customs plaza and ease congestion at the Blue Water Bridge in Port Huron, estimated at $165 million.

“In the interim, it should employ every means possible to facilitate the flow of commerce and trade with one of our greatest neighbors and allies, Canada, including using this new authority to ease congestion, starting with the Blue Water Bridge,” said Miller, who chairs of the House Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security.

Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, also welcomed the agreement.

“Thousands of jobs in southeast Michigan depend on our trade and travel partnership with Canada,” Peters said Monday. “Today’s announcement will strengthen that relationship and bring new economic opportunities to both countries.”

How Michigan compares

Two Michigan ports lead the nation when ranked by the total value of goods traded with Canada.

1. Detroit, $133 billion

2. Port Huron, $86.1 billion

3. Buffalo-Niagara Falls, N.Y., $85.1 billion

4. Pembina, N.D., $27.9 billion

5. Champlain-Rouses Point, N.Y., $23.2 billion

Source: U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics

Originally posted by The Detroit News