Border policies greatly affect communities

Close co-operation between municipalities and chambers of commerce on both sides of the border is important to ensure that decisions made in Washington, DC and Ottawa will serve the interests of most residents of the region, according to University of Lethbridge political scientist Geoffrey Hale.

Groups like the Pacific Northwest Economic Region (PNWER) do an excellent job of promoting broader regional interests on cross-border economic co-operation, says Hale, but there are enough different interests at play on border issues that area business groups can't take political responsiveness for granted.

"Governments in both countries naturally tend to be focused on big ticket items and the busiest border crossings, especially when they're stretched financially" says Hale, noting the ongoing work of the "Beyond the Border" Task Force announced by President Obama and Prime Minister Harper in early 2011. "This can lead to the emergence of 'nickel and dime' irritants that create unnecessary barriers to economic activity."

Recently, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) proposed that the U.S. Congress authorize a study to explore the feasibility of collecting a fee for both Americans and visitors returning to or entering the United States across its land borders with Canada and Mexico. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, about 193 million people crossed the U.S. land border in 2012 – including 1.5 million across Montana's 13 border crossings with Canada.

The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee quickly passed an amendment to the comprehensive immigration bill now before Congress to scrap the measure. Congress is also considering proposals to allow Canadian "snowbirds" not working in the United States to stay an additional two months (above the current six) if they own or rent property there without triggering tax penalties under complex IRS rules. Canadians have invested heavily in vacation and other properties in the Flathead Valley and elsewhere in Montana in recent years.

In 2012, almost one million vehicle crossings occurred at 13 ports of entry into Montana, including 737,724 personal vehicles, with 1,300,642 passengers, 175,770 trucks, 843 buses, 21,342 passengers; and 5,145 pedestrians – most of the latter between the border communities of Sweetgrass and Coutts. The top three crossings – Sweetgrass (I-15); Roosville (US-93), and Peigan (US-89) – account for 86 per cent of passenger vehicle and 84 per cent of truck traffic entering Montana from Canada.

"Cross-border travel, particularly for tourism and recreation, is a major engine for the economy of Flathead Valley," says Hale, who studies economic, security, and other cross-border issues between Canada and the United States. "In addition, Canadian travelers have generated much of the traffic growth at Kalispell / Glacier Park and Kalispell Airports in recent years."

Hale notes that Montana's members of Congress and area legislators have a record of engaging business interests from Montana's northern border regions with a view to promoting economic development and job creation. With members of Congress from both northern and southern border states weighing in on these types of issues, sometimes with very different priorities, it's important for Montanans who benefit from continued cross-border traffic to ensure their voices are heard on these issues, says Hale.