A $75 million project to expand and improve the border crossing in Blaine won't be finished in time for the Vancouver Winter Olympics, creating headaches for travelers and local businesses who were hoping to cash in on the games.
BLAINE — Anyone heading into Canada through the Peace Arch crossing passes by a giant hole in the ground where the northbound lanes of Interstate 5 used to flow.
The dirt pit humming with construction equipment will become the new U.S. port of entry, but the work won’t be finished before the 2010 Winter Olympics next February in Vancouver.
The construction has already created headaches for commerce and tourism, squeezing traffic entering the U.S. down to three lanes. The real challenge now is how to prevent bottlenecks for travelers during the games.
“Go there on a summer weekend or even a winter weekend and the lines are absolutely horrendous,” said Ken Oplinger, president of the Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber of Commerce & Industry, who lives in Blaine.
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A year from now, he worries, media cameras from all over the world will be focused on three-hour backups.
“We are extremely concerned about the situation,” Oplinger said.
If the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees border security, has a plan for relieving congestion, “they have done an amazingly poor job of communicating that plan to us,” Oplinger said.
The Peace Arch, or Douglas Crossing, is the third busiest gateway on the U.S.-Canada border. The $75 million project will expand the entry port from 3 to 12 acres, increasing lanes from eight to 10 and doubling to about 40 the number of secondary inspection lanes, where cars pull up when singled out for closer inspection.
Construction was supposed to be finished before the Olympics. But the design of a new bridge and highway delayed work for months, and now the target completion date has been pushed to November 2010.
Even so, U.S. border officials have a plan to expand lanes at the Peace Arch and two other land ports to make crossing during the Olympics much easier than it is now.
In the meantime, highway traffic has been rerouted through half of the normal inspection lanes. Northbound cars pass the 30-year-old customs building below a makeshift canopy raised to make room for trucks.
“This is what happens when you try to build a new facility next to an existing facility without closing it, right on top of a state highway, without closing it,” said Thomas Schreiber, public-affairs officer for U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP).
“We’re trying to keep the wait times down,” said Schreiber. But he adds, “A Saturday morning in Blaine is like a large city at rush hour.”
Next February, border officials are preparing for a 25 percent increase in traffic to the U.S. around the Winter Olympics, similar to a busy summer day. The CBP is hiring employees and officials in Blaine are asking to bring in more agents on temporary duty to help handle the influx.
About 3,500 cars pass through the Peace Arch border on a slow day, and as many as 4,800 cars on a busy day. That’s a trickle compared with Expo 86, the World’s Fair in Vancouver 23 years ago, when 14,000 people crossed in a 24-hour period, Schreiber said.
While the new port of entry won’t be ready, officials are promising to expand service to accommodate traffic.
First, they will open 10 inspection booths at the Peace Arch crossing, more than double the current three booths plus one NEXUS lane for prescreened frequent travelers. The northbound lanes of I-5 are expected to reopen by September.
“We will have maxed out the capacity as best we could,” said Darin Frost, director for the design and construction division of the U.S. General Services Administration, which is building the site. “We’re doing everything we can to increase throughput during the Olympics.”
Travelers will also have the option of using other points of entry east of Blaine.
Two additional lanes will be opened at the Lynden crossing, for a total of five, and one additional lane will open at Sumas, which will also have a total of five lanes, Frost said.
No changes are planned for the truck crossing at Pacific Highway.
A strong Canadian dollar last year lured southbound shoppers seeking to buy everything from cheaper gasoline to real estate in Washington state.
But more recently, construction delays and new security requirements, along with a plunge in the value of the Canadian dollar, have caused the number of people crossing the border to drop. That’s hurt Whatcom County businesses.
Washington businesses haven’t been able to cash in on the Olympics as much as they once hoped. Only a few have won contracts so far.
The Vancouver Olympics begin next Feb. 12, followed by the Paralympics on March 12.
“While we’re very happy the Olympics are coming, we’re not really projecting a tremendous benefit to Whatcom County as a result of the games,” said Oplinger of the Chamber of Commerce.
Some visitors interested in winter sports could be drawn to Mount Baker while Whistler is occupied for the Olympics, but for those planning to attend Olympic events, Washington would seem a distant commute, especially with border delays.
U.S. border officials are promoting technology as a way to cut wait times and enhance security: new passports, enhanced drivers licenses and NEXUS cards that contain tiny chips with information about the holder.
By the time the Olympics begin, a new mandate will be in effect: the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, an effort to tighten border security in response to the 2001 attacks.
Starting June 1, it requires citizens of the U.S. and Canada to present passports or equivalent travel documents to enter the U.S. by land or sea. Previously, passports were required only for air travel.
As an alternative to a passport, Washington has issued about 37,000 Enhanced Driver Licenses, while British Columbia has issued about 500 of the new licenses. U.S. Customs and Border Protection recently took out full-page newspaper ads for the Enhanced Drivers License, hoping to increase participation.
The licenses contain a radio frequency identification (RFID) tag that transmits data wirelessly to readers installed at each of the lanes at the border. Drivers hold up the new license and it’s instantly scanned.
Before the car reaches the booth, the driver’s photo, background information and any criminal alerts appear on the screen inside. New U.S. passports and NEXUS cards already have the same technology embedded in them.
Canadians, though, have responded tepidly to the new technology and security requirements.
British Columbia officials have said the new travel initiative has hurt cross-border tourism and trade without increasing real security. They are testing the new licenses.
U.S. border officials will have a chance to test their ability to keep traffic flowing smoothly during the World Police & Fire Games in British Columbia, July 31 to Aug. 9, a competition that draws more participants than the Olympics.
One other factor may ease congestion during the Olympics: At least for now, tickets to the events are all but sold out, mostly to Canadians.
Kristi Heim: 206-464-2718 or firstname.lastname@example.org