Border Summit a Polite Affair

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MONTREAL, Que. – But for the outspoken comments of a couple of trucking company owners, outsiders at the second annual border summit June 16 in Montreal would never have guessed at the growing despair of carriers.

The summit reported on the work to improve the flow of goods across the Champlain-Lacolle (New York/Quebec) border crossing, as per the December 2001 agreement to launch an economic corridor between Quebec and New York.

Carrier owners exposed some grimy street-level realities at this upbeat get-together:

“You talk about friendly borders,” said one owner from the floor after a mid-morning presentation on the proposed US$107-million Champlain Port of Excellence (N.Y. state border crossing complex). “I don’t think we will be able to cross this border very easily. It is very, very depressing …”

Midi Express president Pierre Aubin also laid it on the line: “I always wonder why it takes so long to cross the border, with drivers being harassed and made to feel like criminals and terrorists. In Europe there are no borders, yet France and Germany were at war less than 60 years ago … Get down out of your 23rd story (offices) and you will see that a lot of drivers are sick and tired. They put up with things you would never put up with. They can’t eat because the inspectors throw their food away. They can’t go to the bathroom …”

What should alarm truckers, and inspire sharp questions about the level of trucking industry input, is an on-the-spot agreement by one speaker to consult them: Does this mean that the wisdom of end-users, the truckers, after so much Port of Excellence design work, has so far not been sought?

“I am going to recommend, as a result of what you said today, that we meet with some of your drivers and get seat-of-the-pants input,” replied Henry Smith-Miller, principal partner, Smith-Miller & Hawkinson Architects, which, in alliance with the civil engineering firm HNTB, is responsible for designing the Port of Excellence, to a voice from the floor.

The Port of Excellence, which by mid-June was still awaiting Congressional approval, promises to “accommodate hundreds of trucks in a rapid fashion.” The facility, the truck passage part of which will be completed in 2006 or 2007, has been simulated and subjected to a truck velocity study to examine vehicle flow. “What we found at the Champlain side was a big bottleneck at the brokers,” explained Smith-Miller.

He said he is working to iron out this problem, but a border official at the summit caught a peek of another problem as the velocity study was running at someone’s table: the facility includes one X-ray building that selected trucks will be sent through. Take the building out of the simulation, observed the official, and the traffic flows smoothly. Replace it and watch the truck traffic immediately start to back way up the A-15 toward Montreal.

Maybe Aubin was foreseeing events when he said “I hope there will be more gates open, more customs officers. Put more X-ray machines in.”

The bio-terrorism workshop covered the basics of the proposed legislation; e.g., prior notification of trucks arriving at the border and a description of their contents. The legislation is getting a lot of coverage and flack, and the speakers added nothing of note to reassure worried listeners that any mechanism existed to fix problems uncovered once the legislation passes in December and the operational nightmares begin.

Yvon Marcoux, Quebec’s new Minister of Transport, reaffirmed his commitment to making the corridor and the province’s partnership with New York a success.

Quebec’s share of the cost of improving the corridor is some $75 million.

Marcoux mentioned a pre-feasibility study of a high-speed train between Montreal and New York is underway and the results will be ready this fall.

More interesting was an off-the-record comment by a transportation expert that truckers will face very hard times in the next few years until the A-30 ring road around Montreal is completed.

There simply are no short-term solutions to the traffic crisis on the Champlain Bridge, the expert said.

This is not good, since a lot of trucks have to fight their way to the South Shore before they reach the Quebec/New York corridor.

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