Border agency takes first steps to close border post; $8.5M upgrade halted indefinitely

By Matt Gouras, AP
Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Government takes steps to close border post

HELENA, Mont. — U.S. Customs and Border Protection said Tuesday it will take steps to close a little-used border Montana post that was in the midst of an $8.5 million stimulus-funded makeover when Canada announced it would shut its side of the crossing.

CBP officials said Tuesday the Whitetail port can be closed only after a 90-day congressional review, a 60-day public comment period and then a final decision by the agency.

The Whitetail port was thrown into limbo this summer after Canada decided it will close its station April 1. That left U.S. officials who had directed federal stimulus money at the station scrambling for solutions.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano held a forum last month to get local comment. Last week, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester declared the station should be closed since Canada couldn’t be talked into sharing the new facility.

Tester said the upgrades were needed to improve poor security provisions at the U.S. port — which before 9/11 closed for the night by placing orange cones in the road. He said that until the decision by Canada to close its side, upgrading the little-used port made sense.

The port is one of a few that services a rural and long stretch of the border in northeastern Montana. Residents say it is largely used by area farmers for trade and convenience.

The episode underscores the criticism leveled against the U.S. government for spending more than $23 million in federal stimulus funding to upgrade Whitetail and four other Montana border posts.

“We’ve got some politicians telling us that ‘virtually no one wants or needs’ the Port of Whitetail, and that’s very clearly not true,” Tester, a Democrat, said in a statement. “And I invite anyone who believes rural Montana is ‘nowhere’ to come visit, or at least spend more time understanding the very real security threats we face at America’s remote border crossings.”

Montana politics provided a testy backdrop to the decision. Republican U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg has been hammering the project as a waste of money.

“No one bothered to investigate the Whitetail Port or talk to the Canadians before deciding it was worth millions to fix it up,” Rehberg said. “While I’m glad that CBP heeded my demands to stop wasting this money, I think the taxpayers in Montana would have preferred that these kinds of decisions had been made before more than a million unrecoverable stimulus dollars were put into it in the first place.”

The CBP says it expects several million will be saved by the time the project formally wraps up. The money saved by halting work will go back to the treasury.

In making his recommendation last week to close the port, Tester said the best offer from Canada was to remotely monitor car traffic only on its side of the border — and only if the U.S. paid for the needed technology.

“CBP and the Canada Border Services Agency explored a number of scenarios in an attempt to maintain two-way traffic at this location but were unable to find a solution that met both the needs of the local community as well as our national security standards, leaving closure as the most appropriate course of action,” CBP spokeswoman Jenny Burke said.

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