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U.S. budget standoff to snarl border crossings

The U.S. government
The U.S. government's failure to avoid sequestration – severe and sweeping budget cuts – on Friday (March 1) will mean layoffs of American border guards and longer waits for Canadians who were lining up at the 176 Street/Pacific Hwy. truck crossing Sunday.
— image credit: Dan Ferguson / Black Press

Border crossings that are often jammed with shoppers heading south may soon get even more congested as the U.S. government is forced to lay off thousands of border employees.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has begun cutting employee hours and is slated to furlough 5,000 more staff by early April after Congress and President Barack Obama failed to reach a comprehensive deal by March 1 to reduce federal spending, triggering automatic spending cuts.

The initial cuts at Customs and Border Protection (CBP) are already resulting in reports of longer processing lines at some U.S. airports.

CBP officials predict waits up to 50 per cent longer at major airports – four hours or longer at peak times – and a doubling of peak waits to five hours or more at the busiest land crossings.

"Travellers should adjust their trip itineraries to account for unexpected delays," the department warned in a statement.

The longest southbound lines at Lower Mainland crossings are weekend mornings and they could get much longer because the use of overtime is now banned.

"They hold shifts over longer or call shifts in earlier to keep as many lines open as possible – that won't be happening," said Ken Oplinger, president of the Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber of Commerce.

"We're thinking it could add an extra 15 to 30 minutes onto the regular lines."

Nexus card holders should continue to get speedy clearance but new applicants face longer approval times due to an expected surge in demand.

It's hoped the arbitrary across-the-board cuts will be unpalatable to both Republicans and Democrats, spurring them to reach a deal before border slowdowns cause serious economic damage.

"If this goes on into the summer that's when we're really going to have an issue," Oplinger said. "On a summer weekend we can get  two- to three-hour lineups and we could be adding 45 minutes to an hour on top of that at those peak times."

One factor that might slow cross-border shopping is the recent slide of the loonie.

The dollar is down to around 97 cents U.S. and Oplinger said a further drop to below 95 cents may begin to reduce the number of southbound shoppers from Canada.

Surrey Board of Trade CEO Anita Huberman predicts cross-border shoppers won't be deterred by either the weaker dollar or the slower crossings.

"I still think people are going to wait in line to get that best deal," she said, renewing calls for Ottawa to address higher import duties and tariffs affecting Canadian retailers.

Huberman said any impact on the smooth flow of trade is a "huge concern."

Truckers are also being warned they face significant delays at the borders in the weeks ahead if the U.S. budget impasse continues.

B.C. Trucking Association vice-president Trace Acres said major impacts aren't expected for the first 30 days, as affected U.S. border staff are getting one month notice.

"It is definitely a concern," Acres said, estimating 300 of the association's 450 members haul cargo across the border.

More truckers could pursue membership in FAST (Free and Secure Trade), the equivalent of Nexus for trusted commercial carriers, but Acres added it's not a solution for most firms.

"There has been a lot of work done on both sides of the border to try to improve efficiencies and reduce border wait times," Acres said.

The fear now, he said, is that all the time invested by truckers, manufacturers, exporters and authorities on both sides of the border "could just become undone by factors outside of our control."

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