Call for new U.S. crossing fee at land borders criticized in both countries

TORONTO – A proposal to charge travellers a new crossing fee at U.S. land border crossings has drawn condemnation in both countries.

The call to study a new levy — contained in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s proposed budget for 2014 — is needed to defray increased security costs, proponents say.

However, Michael MacKenzie, executive director of the 70,000-member Canadian Snowbird Association, said Monday that Washington is trying to ease its “desperate financial situation” on the backs of Canadian travellers.

“While we appreciate the fiscal challenges faced by our friends in the United States, we would prefer the U.S. government focus on ways to reduce obstacles at the border that hinder trade and tourism,” MacKenzie said Monday.

“People feel like maybe they’re being nickel and dimed a little bit and politicians are taxing people who can’t vote, which makes sense politically but it just sends the wrong message.”

Currently, air passengers pay to enter the U.S. but the fee is included in the price of the plane ticket. Drivers and pedestrians do not pay a specific entry fee, although bridges spanning the border charge tolls that go to the bridge authorities.

In its proposal, the Department of Homeland Security urges a study of setting up and collecting a crossing fee for both pedestrians and passenger vehicles along the Canadian and Mexican borders.

Among other things, the study would examine the feasibility of collecting from “existing operators on the land border, such as bridge commissions, toll operators, commercial passenger bus, and commercial passenger rail.”

Given the early stages of the proposal, just how such a fee might work — whether it might apply to travellers leaving the U.S. as well and what it might cost — is far from clear.

In testimony two weeks ago to a Homeland Security Committee, the head of the department Janet Napolitano said fees that support processing more than 350 million travellers a year have not been adjusted, in many cases, for more than a decade.

“As the complexity of our operations continues to expand, the gap between fee collections and the operations they support is growing, and the number of workforce-hours fees support decreases each year,” Napolitano said.

The budget proposal, she said, calls for hiring more customs and immigration officers through adjustments in inspection user fees “to recover more of the costs associated with providing services.”

Critics warn that fee collection could already slow clogged border crossings.

Last week, Democratic Rep. Brian Higgins from Buffalo said any fee could hurt cross-border business.

“At a time when we are looking to increase economic activity at our northern border, we should not be authoring proposals that would do the reverse,” Higgins said in a letter to Napolitano, according to the Buffalo News.

Given the importance of cross-border traffic, successive Canadian governments — including that of Prime Minister Stephen Harper — have made the free flow of goods and people a priority.

MacKenzie said there already numerous fees and taxes to cross the border and a new tax could be a “sizable economic burden” to people who cross the border regularly or for amateur sports teams.