New passport rules could be bad for business

Operators of the Victoria Clipper have been warning potential passengers for months that they’ll need more than just their sea legs when boarding the fast ferry to Seattle starting on Monday

Customs and Border Protection Agent Bernard Alvarez explaining to a motorist crossing the border at the San Ysidro Border Crossing in San Diego

Operators of the Victoria Clipper have been warning potential passengers for months that they’ll need more than just their sea legs when boarding the fast ferry to Seattle starting on Monday.

But the real test will come when the boats pass through customs as of today, the day new passport regulations kick in for people travelling into the U.S. by land or water.

“Right now I think we are feeling pretty good,” said Darrell Bryan, president and CEO Clipper Navigation Inc., which operates the ferry service between Victoria and Seattle.

He said about 90 per cent of people travelling on his ferries today have the proper identification required to make the cross-border trip.

Bryan said the decision to delay the regulations until now, which is about 18 months after the rules for air travel took effect in Jan. 27, 2008, helped smooth potential problems for his business. In particular, it gave them more time to communicate the pending change.

“Certainly, if this had happened earlier as they originally proposed, it would have been devastating,” Bryan said.

As of Monday, people travelling to the United States by land or water will need a passport or other approved documents such as the NEXUS card used by frequent travellers, the Free and Secure Trade (FAST) card used by truckers, or one of the enhanced driver’s licences offered in such provinces as British Columbia, Manitoba and Quebec.

The rules are part of the U.S.-imposed Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative intended to enhance border security.

Businesses that travel cross-border by boat, train or truck say they have been preparing their customers and staff for months about the new rules, and agree the delay has helped prevent potential chaos.

However, some business groups worry that individuals who still may not know about the new regulations could cause tie ups at the border.

The Canadian Trucking Alliance, which represents about 4,500 trucking companies across Canada, said the majority of its members are ready for the new rules.

“Our concern more is that passenger traffic is not prepared and the secondary impact will be a backup and lineups at the border and how that will contribute to delayed trucks,” said Jennifer Fox, the CTA’s assistant vice-president of customer and cross border operations.

The CTA also worries about a government decision to begin distributing new and improved FAST cards to truckers at the same time as the new identification rules kick in.

Fox said the concern is that old cards, which are still valid, may not be accepted by certain front-line customs officers who may not recognize them.

“We are hopeful that there will be no surprises come Monday, but a lot depends on matters that are out of our control at this point in time,” the CTA stated.

Jayson Myers, president of the Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters, said he hopes any delays will be short-lived.

“It’s the last thing we need right now given the fragility of the manufacturing system,” he said.

Myers said many businesses are making contingency plans in case of border delays as a result of the new rules, such as stocking up on inventory.

Canadian National Railway Co. (TSX:CNR), Canada’s biggest rail company and a major freight hauler in the United States, said its train and engine crew members who work at cross-border locations have been “amply notified” of the change.

“We do not expect any impact on CN’s trans-border operations,” CN spokesman Mark Hallman said.

Catherine Swift, president and CEO of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, said businesses are prepared for the change.

“It’s not like they have a choice,” she said.

However, Swift called the U.S. move more about “protectionism” and “just one more thing” that businesses have to deal with when trying to work with their American customers.

International Trade Minister Stockwell Day said Ottawa is “putting increased resources into the infrastructure changes at the border so people can get across faster.”

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