Canada to spend on customs and border infrastructure

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OTTAWA, Ont. — The federal government is opening up the nation’s purse to ensure Canada-U.S. trade continues to flow smoothly across the border, says Finance Minister Paul Martin.

“No amount of money has been settled yet, that will come out in the budget,” says Martin. “But whatever it takes, we’re prepared to invest it.”

The feds hope the move will keep the Can-Am ribbon, “as open and as seamless as possible in terms of commercial traffic,” says Martin.

Customs and security checks at border points have long been a sore point for Canadian manufacturers and exporters and the problem has been exacerbated by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States.

Federal Transport Minister David Collenette later confirmed the government will put up some $500 million — to be spent over several years — for infrastructure like highways and bridges at border points and electronic and other technology to improve customs processing. All told, $65 million is to be focused at, “…trade efficiency while promoting safety and security at our border crossings,” he outlines.

When asked by Truck News how much of this money would be spent in the Windsor area, Collenette admitted he didn’t know, however he did identify the southwestern Ontario city — and it’s infamous Huron Church municipal road leading to the Ambassador Bridge — as the top priority for funding.

Further details are expected in the budget Martin will deliver in December. Martin acknowledged that — aside from cross-border commerce — he briefed O’Neill on police and security measures taken since Sept. 11, including the sweeping anti-terrorist bill now before the Commons.

Among matters expected to be on the table:

— Greater reliance on pre-clearance of goods, including inspections at the factory gate where possible rather than at border points.

— Advance background checks on truckers and employers for security purposes, ensuring those who raise no suspicions can cross the border speedily.

— Electronic processing of customs forms to collect duties and taxes, again to avoid long queues at border crossings.

Canadian officials stress the measures will not infringe national sovereignty or mean a total disappearance of the border.

Nor will they mean a full-fledged customs union, which would require Ottawa and Washington to adopt common tariffs for goods originating in third countries.

Government sources admit Canadian infrastructure spending assumes the U.S. is willing to do the same. It would make no sense, for example, to widen highways on the Canadian side if bottlenecks remain on the American side.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill sidestepped the question of how much Washington is ready to spend — as did Collenette — he did say it will put up cash where needed but emphasized new administrative procedures can also help.

In any event, the Canadian Trucking Alliance (CTA) is cheering the move calling it, “very positive news.”

In a press briefing following a speech by Collenette, David Bradley, head of the CTA said today’s announcement signals the beginning of an era of border bilateralism.

“We have been pushing from the start for a bilateral approach. One based on the development of a common vision of the border and of common strategies to defend it but also to make it trade efficient. Today that approach takes shape,” he adds.

More than 80 per cent of Canadian exports go to the U.S. market, while about 25 per cent of American exports come to Canada. The cross-border trade of more than $1 billion a day is vital to both economies.

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