Border fee idea stirs opposition

A federal budget proposal that could lead to border crossing fees on Canadian visitors is drawing opposition from inside and outside of Congress.

Congressman Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., joined colleagues this week in sending a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, urging her department to reconsider a proposed study on the impact of a border crossing fee on visitors to the United States. The proposal is included in President Obama’s Fiscal Year 2014 budget request.

“I am quite certain it has no chance,” Cramer said of the study.

“It sends a bad signal, plus it’s a waste of money,” he said, noting that Congress won’t pass a crossing fee regardless of the study outcome.

Allan Engh, owner of Engh’s Trustworthy Hardware in Sherwood, said a crossing fee is a senseless idea.

“Why would you charge guests to come into your country and spend money? It’s crazy,” he said.

He estimated 35 percent of his business comes from Canadian customers, including many for whom Sherwood, two miles from the border, is their closest town for gas or groceries. They travel across the border to visit family and attend social gatherings. Engh said charging the a fee would be U.S. arrogance and a “slap in the face.”

He added that a crossing fee would be devastating to towns all along the border that benefit from Canadian traffic. Even a small fee could discourage visitors, he said.

Clint Reinoehl, director of the Convention and Visitors Bureau in Bottineau, said even if a small fee didn’t discourage Canadian visitors, it’s bad for international relations.

“I don’t think they would be very happy about it,” he said of Canadian visitors.

Cramer said he recently visited with Canadian Ambassador Gary Doerr and came away convinced that Canadians would not be enthused about border fees.

Cramer is co-chairman of the Northern Border Caucus and a member of the Travel and Tourism Caucus in the United States House of Representatives. From 1993 to 1997, he served as North Dakota’s tourism director.

North Dakota welcomes more than a million visitors from Canada each year, Cramer said. He added that the United States and Canada are exploring ways to create a more seamless border, especially with respect to trade. A border fee would be counter-productive to those negotiations, he said.

Sara Otte Coleman, director of the state Tourism Division, said imposing a border crossing fee would send the wrong message.

“We have enjoyed an excellent relationship with Canada and even share one of our state’s major attractions, the International Peace Garden. North Dakota was the 10th most visited state by Canadian travelers in 2011, spending 1.5 million nights, an 11 percent increase over 2010, and more than $242 million,” Otte Coleman said in a prepared statement. “Many North Dakota communities join the state in marketing in Canada and depend on repeat Canadian visitors. The strong border crossing numbers we have seen would likely drop should a fee be assessed to Canadians and, in turn, have a negative impact on local economies.”

The 2014 budget request from the Department of Homeland Security contains language supporting a study on fee collection for passenger vehicles and pedestrians. It also advocates a test pilot project on all steps involved in such a process, including the feasibility of collecting from existing operators such as bridge commissions, toll operators, commercial passenger bus and commercial passenger rail.