“The Champlain border crossing was designed to accommodate visitors to Expo 67, the World’s Fair in Montreal,” said Garry Douglas, president of the North Country Chamber of Commerce. “At that time, there was no real commercial crossing. Trucks intermixed with tourist traffic, and by 2000, after a several fold increase in truck volumes, there were substantial delays.”
Sunday nights were the biggest time for t r uck movements f rom Ca nada. Unfortunately, since there was only one lane for trucks to line up on Autoroute 15, and, after reaching the plaza, having only two truck booths available (the rest being reserved for car traffic), the truck waiting line often extended up to several miles north (“a truck parking lot” described Douglas), and border wait times (the number of minutes each truck spends in line and being processed), exponentially increased. And while this was bad enough, unfortunately, more disturbing was the fact that truckers, who did not expect to encounter traffic at a complete stop on a rural highway on a Sunday night, got into serious, and sometimes fatal, accidents.
Added to those problems was the lack of cargo warehouse space for inspections, inadequate space for the various agencies with an inspection role and poor provisions on site for the Customs brokers who were working in shacks in a parking lot.
“Since commerce with Canada was and is the single greatest driving force in our regional economy, we needed a more expansive, efficient and flexible border crossing,” explained Douglas. “We termed it a Port of Excellence instead of an average Port of Entry. The fact that the Champlain/Lacolle border is a land border, and not one with a bridge or tunnel controlled by a thirdparty authority, meant that it needed a stakeholder advocacy organization to establish an independent vision and pursue it, so the Chamber became and remains that organization.”
WHEN THE VISION ENTERED THE PLANNING STAGES
The catalyst came in September 1995 with the closure of the Plattsburgh Air Force Base (PAFB). As one of the oldest military posts in the country, the U.S. had maintained a military presence in Plattsburgh since 1814. Highly controversial, and described by many, including then Congressman John McHugh as “unjust and unwise”, the social and economic ramifications of the PAFB closing to the North Country community were substantial, and seemingly irreparable.
“The Chamber was in a position to help guide the business community through the transition,” said Douglas. “We came to the conclusion that, using the lesson of human economies, our greatest asset was our position on the New York-Montreal corridor. What if we got smart, and acted strategically, instead of allowing other forces to happen to us? We already had the intellectual resources and geographical location—we could make ourselves an economic suburb of Montreal — to accelerate the integration of the U.S./Canadian economies. Look at history. The Erie Canal, the Transcontinental Railroad and highways. Where things move is where prosperity occurs.”
The project already had some momentum when the 9/11 attacks forced a paradigm shift to more security concerns. “With the proper planning and cooperation from all stakeholders, we knew we could have security and economic prosperity at the same time, while tapping the new will in Congress to appropriate money for the border,” explained Douglas.
“Improving the crossing was absolutely essential for long-term recovery in a post 9/11 world,” added McHugh. “The closing of PAFB combined with 9/11 meant that the North Country community, in my judgement, absolutely deserved a 100% fulfillment of its vision.”
A COOPERATIVE EFFORT
“We wanted a zero-based solution, meaning that everything would be replaced on a grand scale instead of just making improvements, and that all parties, U.S. and Canadian, would benefit equally from this enhancement,” said Douglas. “We had the support in both houses of Congress, led by John McHugh as well as Senators Chuck Schumer and Hillary Clinton. Senator Schumer visited the border crossing with us in his first weeks in office in early 1999.”
To summarize: The project was awarded $107 million by Congress for the main body of the facilities. Additional funds contributed by New York State, Canada, and Quebec brought the total cost to $170 million. Construction took several years, but when it was complete, the Champlain/Lacolle crossing had nine truck lanes with a separate commercial crossing, a massive new cargo warehouse that instead of the former two bays—with one barely usable— had eight bays. Customs brokers had their own wing in the building, and all of the special inspection agencies had adequate space and the latest technology to reduce processing times. During that time, U.S. Customs and Border Protection staffing was virtually doubled.
“It really was a tremendous breakthrough,” said Jim Phillips, President of the Can/Am Border Trade Alliance. “It was an impressive grass roots design that released a choke point. It totally opened up the region and established a model for all northern border crossings.”
“The project was a collective effort involving Garry Douglas and the Chamber, the U.S. government, New York State government, the New York State Department of Transportation, U.S. Homeland Security, the Ministry of Transport Quebec, the officers working at the border, and the local trade unions,” said Chris Perry, the Customs Port Director at Champlain during the planning and construction of the new port of entry. “It was absolutely the right approach; it has had an amazingly positive impact on the region. Also, it was a tremendous experience for me to be involved with all the partners. It has been one of the highlights of my career.” (Perry is now working on an enhanced border crossing in Detroit involving the construction of a bridge. “I get to do it all over again,” he said.)
LIVING UP TO ITS EXPECTATIONS
Up to 76% of all Quebec exports go to the U.S., and half go through the Champlain/Lacolle border crossing. There are more than 100 Canadian companies in the Plattsburgh area, including Nova Bus and Bombardier. The Chamber estimates that 15% of the Clinton County workforce is employed by a Canadian or border related employer on the U.S. side. Many of them are manufacturers, making things out of parts that crisscross the border before the final product is finished.
The project launched deep and strategic relationships according to Douglas. “A dozen of us, a Dwell Time Task Force, meet Chris Perry in Washington D.C. a couple of times a year to share numbers and monitor performance with top CBP officials.” (“Dwell time” is the number of minutes a vehicle spends at the booth.)
Adequate border staffing and maintaining trusted traveler and expedited border crossing programs, such as NEXUS and FAST, are among today’s priorities. According to Douglas, our area enjoys a great working relationship with the current Port Director, Steve Bronson and his outstanding officers and colleagues at Champlain.
“Wait times are down, and we will help to resolve any other issues that arise. The effort continues,” assured Douglas. “It’s a living vision that has included other area border investments each year and such upcoming projects as the planned replacement of the Rouses Point Port of Entry.”