Residents seethe as U.S. officials detail plan to cut hours at Maine-N.B. crossing
Crossing hours to be cut in half under U.S. Customs and Border Protection plan
The communities of Vanceboro, Maine, and McAdam, N.B., are separated by six kilometres and a border.
But on Wednesday night, they were united by their disdain for a plan to close that border crossing 12 hours a day.
More than 100 residents from both Canada and the U.S. gathered at the Vanceboro community centre to voice displeasure with the plan by U.S. Customs and Border Protection to reduce hours at their Vanceboro port of entry from 24 hours a day to 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Maine time.
Port director Herm Gadway gave the crowd the reasons for closing the Vanceboro-St. Croix crossing half the day, beginning with pre-pandemic figures that indicate an average of 7.4 private vehicles and six commercial vehicles cross during the 12 hours to be affected by the cut in hours.
Gadway added that since the border has reopened following COVID-19 restrictions,the Vanceboro-St. Criox crossing sees just three vehicles cross between 8 p.m. and 8 a.m. with "89 per cent of all private vehicle traffic" crossing during the day.
Staffing is another reason for the cut, he said.
"Efforts since 2017 to recruit CBP staff in Vanceboro have been mostly unsuccessful and the port has not been able to achieve full staffing for some time," said Gadway, reading from a prepared statement.
Staff from the Calais, Maine, crossing have been needed to cover staff shortages "at great agency expense," he said.
Finally, an increase in rail traffic at the border crossing has required the relocation of staff.
"An increase of 35 per cent since 2018," said Gadway. "Railroad stakeholders have notified Maine area port management of an expected fourfold increase in rail containers both in and outbound in the coming years with a large increase already starting in June of 2022."
Ottawa recently announced it is sending $21.2 million to Irving-owned New Brunswick Southern Railway to upgrade rail terminals in McAdam, as well as Saint John.
Gadway's case for the cut in hours was not good enough for residents.
For nearly two hours, they pleaded with Gadway to consider the impact of cutting off family members from each other for 12 hours a day.
Some questioned access to emergency services. The McAdam Fire Department often assists in fighting blazes on the U.S. side, they said, and the nearest medical centre to Vanceboro is in McAdam. Gadway said something would be worked out on that issue, but he didn't elaborate.
Ken Stannix, the mayor of McAdam, pointed to a growing population and economy in his village and said shuttering the border half the time would hinder jobs and opportunities on both sides. He urged the decision to be pushed back three to five years to prove it.
"Give us the opportunity to show you that we can increase the traffic coming back and forth across the border," said Stannix. "When you shut things down, it is very hard to get it fired up again."
Not a happy crowd
When Tuesday night's crowd was asked if anyone present agreed with the plan to reduce hours everyone remained silent and still.
Residents took their turns voicing concerns in order, but two points of contention made some visibly agitated. The first was the lack of a formal announcement by U.S. federal officals to the Town of Vanceboro that a reduction of hours was coming.
Select board member Corinna Corpley told CBC News that no town employee or member of the select board, the equivalent of town council, got notice from U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
"Nobody from there, from officials, came to any selectman meeting or any selectperson that I know off," said Corpley.
The second point was Gadway's insistence that the decision to reduce those hours is not yet set in stone. Residents said they have spent weeks watching new gates and protective infrastructure being built at the crossing, a process Gadway termed as "hardening the port."
It's a process he says is necessary if the crossing is closed 12 hours a day.
While U.S. Customs and Border Protection couldn't say what the cost of that new infrastructure was, its simple existence is enough to convince seething residents that the decision has already been made.
They include Jeffery Evangelos, an independent in Maine's house of representatives who helped facilitate the meeting.
"Where I work, in the Maine legislature, when anything is purposed the first step is always consultation with the public, not the last step," said Evangelos. "You don't make a decision and then talk to the folks. That is ass-backwards. I'm sorry."
Although Gadway took questions from Wednesday's crowd ,he would not take any questions from reporters.
Ryan Brissette, a spokesperson for the Department of Homeland Security, said that because a specific date for the reduction of hours has not yet been confirmed because of setbacks in the port "hardening," no public notice could be given.
"The construction has been on/off, had its issues, taken a little bit longer than we thought it might, so we didn't have a secure date," said Brissette.
He said the agency only has to give notice a month before a reduction of hours.
"We really only have to do the 30 days and we're kind of ahead of that now," said Brissette.
For residents, the next step is organizing efforts to modify the planned cut, according to Evangelos and Cropley.
"We're going to follow up with Mr. Gadway and try to get like a stakeholders meeting to maybe try and reduce the hours a little less," said Cropley.