Canada border loses easygoing ways - and business

On this long-porous boundary, many small firms see traffic ebb

From Hill's Chevron on Interstate 5, just a half-mile south of America's northern border, Mike Hill can gaze across the choppy waters of Boundary Bay and see Canada. What he's not seeing are his Canadian customers, who for years made up a significant chunk of his business.

"It's hit us pretty hard," he says. "We were doing 11,000 gallons a day up to Sept. 11. And after that, it dropped off to 2,500 gallons a day. I had to lay some people off - from four [staff] down to 2 - and now I'm working 12 hours a day."

Sales have bounced back a bit, to about 5,000 gallons per day - but only after Mr. Hill slashed the price to a penny below his costs, hoping sales of milk and sundries would be his ticket to survival.

The trouble at Hill's Chevron reflects the significant ways that the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks have changed the culture and economy of America's once-porous 5,500-mile boundary with Canada.

New attitude at the line

Border checkpoints where vehicles used to be waved through with few questions beyond "How are you?" and "How long will you be staying?" are now the scene of routine inspections of IDs, trunks, and even glove compartments. Traffic backups that used to appear on busy summer weekends can now crop up anytime.

So far, this new reality is evident mainly at a few key crossing points, and reflects jointly agreed measures to step up security - not tension between the US and Canada. Yet it still represents a jarring, and probably long-term shift from an easygoing atmosphere that has prevailed from Seattle to the St. Lawrence River.

Faced with, say, a three-hour jam-up, Canadians who routinely came south for better prices - or dinner and a movie - are staying home. That, in turn, has put a squeeze on many stores, restaurants, and hotels.

"If I were running a coffee shop or a gas station near the border, can I survive a 10 or 15 percent drop in sales?" asks Hart Hodges of the Center for Economic and Business Research at Western Washington University in Bellingham. "Probably, if it's short-term. But ... there are some businesses up near the border that are not going to make it."

Small businesses are struggling more than chain stores or larger enterprises. The weak Canadian dollar already had removed some of the incentive that for years sent bargain-seeking Canadians to malls in Bellingham, Wash., and elsewhere.

Many mom-and-pop outfits have applied for a federal aid program tied to Sept. 11, or are reinventing themselves with measures like the cut-rate gas prices.

Aside from the economic hardships facing small businesses, the other major impact falls on those actually guarding the border. US Immigration and Customs agents stationed at the ports of entry have had to work demanding schedules since Sept. 11.

Overworked guards

"There are ports of entry in eastern Washington where people haven't had a day off since Sept. 11," says Ronald Hays, an inspections official at the US Immigration and Naturalization Service district in Seattle. Even with detachments of Border Patrol agents brought in to help with vehicle inspections, agents work overtime.

In December, US Attorney General John Ashcroft joined Canadian officials to sign measures that aim to tighten border security while also ensuring that the $1 billion per day in US-Canada trade continues. The steps include sharing computerized fingerprint data and calling up 600 US National Guard troops to help at border crossings. Visa policies will be coordinated to make it harder for people refused by one country to enter through the other.

Although there are 126 ports of entry along the US-Canada border, six account for most of the traffic: Port Huron, the Detroit Tunnel, Detroit's Ambassador Bridge (all in Michigan), the Buffalo Peace Bridge, and Niagara Falls (both in New York), and Blaine. Most of the long waits occur on these routes.

Despite back-ups that sometimes last for hours, some observers say the increased security is not greatly affecting the commercial trucking industry.

"We've not seen any major delays, haven't seen anything that would disrupt our customer service," says John Hyre of Roadway Express, a US firm that operates in Canada, Mexico, and 50 states.

Customs officials have deployed special X-ray equipment that can quickly scan trailers for suspicious contents.

Figures collected by Hodges show that, for October and November, auto crossings at Blaine were down 35 to 38 percent from the same period a year earlier. In December the situation improved, at least on paper: Traffic was only off by 20 percent from 2000 levels.

But even on days when there are no delays, it's the uncertainty that matters. Says Louise Mugar, an advertising representative here: "You never know what the border's going to be like."

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