Gregory Alvarez and Daniela Evans spoke at a South Surrey conference.

Both sides aim for faster border travel

Hazelmere hosts international meeting for business-government coalition

An official in charge of the U.S. side of the Pacific Highway border crossing agrees more lanes are needed to reduce delays but says so far his superiors are unwilling to install them.

“We’ve been long overdue for a lane expansion,” Gregory Alvarez, the area port director for the Blaine U.S. Customs and Border Protection office, told a South Surrey conference last week. “We do reach out to our headquarters to make that case every year.”

Alvarez made his remarks during a question-and-answer session at a meeting of the International Mobility and Trade Corridor (IMTC) project, a U.S.-Canadian coalition of government and business that promotes improvements to mobility and security for the four border crossings that connect Washington State and Metro Vancouver.

About 90 representatives from industry and government agencies on both sides of the border attended Thursday’s meeting at Hazelmere Golf Club.

Alvarez was responding to a complaint about backups in the single Nexus lane at the truck crossing that is supposed to provide speedy passage to travellers who have passed a pre-clearance background check and paid a fee.

Asked if U.S. customs couldn’t use one of the other lanes for Nexus cardholders, Alvarez said doing so would reduce the number of lanes available to handle traffic that requires longer processing times, thus worsening delays overall.

“I’ve got trucks, buses… I’ve got to balance that,” he said.

Alvarez estimated there is room to accommodate at least two additional lanes at the truck crossing, which currently has three lanes for commercial traffic and six for smaller vehicles.

The pressure on the Nexus lanes is increasing, according to the official in charge of the Canadian side of the border crossings.

Daniela Evans, the new  Pacific Highway district director of the Canadian Border Services Agency, said demand for Nexus cards has grown by 43 per cent over four years, with 735,000 Canadians currently enrolled.

Evans said the Canadian and U.S. customs agencies are working together  to reduce delays.

“We are sharing information and best practices,” Evans said.

Alvarez said applications at the Nexus office at the truck crossing are backlogged, with the office unable to book any appointments before December. There are plans in the works, he said, to relocate the Nexus office off-site to have more room to handle processing of applicants.

Andre Lamoureux, the manager of the National Trusted Traders program for the Canada Border Services Agency, said a pilot project now underway in Sarnia, Ont., may help find solutions to congestion at B.C. border crossings.

Lamoureux told the conference the six-month FAST (Free And Secure Trade) program at the Blue Water Bridge could lead to a nationwide program that would speed cross-border shipping through harmonizing customs clearances and using RFID (Radio-frequency identification) chips similar to those used in Nexus cards to speed up identification.