SEATTLE – By Michael Hill’s estimation, 90 percent of the people pumping gas at his station just south of the U.S.-Canada border in Washington state are Canadians.
Gas north of the 49th parallel, he said, is about $1.30 a gallon more expensive than in the United States. But that’s not the only product that Canadians seek in visits to Washington state: Beer, wine and milk are significantly cheaper (beer and wine alone are roughly half the price in the U.S.).
Add a strong Canadian dollar and the result is a key element of the economy in the towns of Whatcom County. For example, the town of Blaine, population just shy of 5,000, generates more than $225,000 from a penny-a-gallon gas tax, which is about 30 percent of its street maintenance budget.
That’s why Hill and others are troubled by the notion of charging a fee to enter the U.S. by land. Last month, in its 2014 fiscal year budget proposal, the Department of Homeland Security sought approval to study a fee at land border crossings.
It’s a deterrent, said Hill, whose station is fully stocked with wine and has a reader board that says Thank you, Canadians.
They should be doing anything they can to get them down here to buy more, he added.
That lone request sparked wide opposition among members of Congress from Northern states, who vowed to stop it. A fee, they say, would hurt communities on the border that rely on people, goods and money moving between the U.S. and Canada.
The imposition of such a toll would act as a barrier to the greater economic integration that we seek, and is the absolute last thing we should be doing to grow our economy, stated a letter sent to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano earlier this month signed by 18 Republican and Democratic House lawmakers.
Currently it costs nothing to enter the country by land. Air and sea crossings already have a fee of less than $2, which are included in ticket prices.
But border fees, albeit local ones, already exist on the Southern border. In Texas, local municipalities charge fees to use bridges that connect Mexico and the U.S.
Ken Oplinger, president of the Bellingham/Whatcom County Chamber of Commerce in Washington state, worries about an increase to the wait time at the border. He said border traffic has just fully rebounded to pre-Sept. 11 volumes, adding that on summer weekends the wait to enter the U.S. can be as high as two hours. He fears that adding some sort of mechanism to collect the toll would mean more waiting time.
For Kenn Morris, president of marketing research firm Crossborder Group Inc. in San Diego, the future of the border is in public-private partnerships, unless the government acts to improve ports of entry. For example, a private company operates and builds a port of entry, booths and roads, and charges a fee to recoup its investment.
I think that it’s inevitable that more border regions use those tools and those who don’t want to use it, that’s their choice, but they shouldn’t take the ability for other regions to at least look at that option, he said. For those regions that want the ability to charge a fee, we need good analyses to create good policy.