TORONTO — A proposal to charge travellers a new fee when entering the U.S. at land border crossings has drawn condemnation in both countries.
The call to study a new levy — contained in the U.S. Dept. 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 in a statement.
'We would prefer the U.S. government focus on ways to reduce obstacles at the border' —Michael MacKenzie, executive director of the Canadian Snowbird Association
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, would call for hiring more customs and immigration officers "through adjustments in immigration and customs- inspections 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.
Ottawa will "vigourously" fight the proposal
Ottawa "will vigorously lobby against" the proposal to charge every vehicle and pedestrian at any land border crossing, says a spokeswoman for Canada's Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade.
Canada's Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade thinks a fee to simply enter the U.S. would be bad for business between the two countries. Should the U.S. charge every vehicle that enters the country a fee to help fund the homeland security budget? Yes No Vote View Results
"Canadian officials will vigorously lobby against this proposal," department spokeswoman Emma Welford told CBC News in an email. "We believe that any fee on travelers crossing the Canada-U.S. border would be bad for travelers and bad for the economy,"
Welford said Canadians spend more $21 billion annually in the U.S. In Windsor, Chrysler alone, for example, makes more than 1,600 customs entries in Windsor-Detroit every day.