Obama's second term offers Canada hope for a more efficient border

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Appeared in Embassy: Diplomacy This Week

With Barack Obama earning another four-year term, Canadians can only hope the newly re-elected American president will stay the course in modernizing the Canada-U.S. border and make good on commitments outlined in the Beyond the Border agreements.

One positive sign is the endorsement by Michigan voters of the construction of a second bridge linking Detroit and Windsor. Given the congestion at the Ambassador Bridge, the New International Trade Crossing will provide much needed relief for Canadian and American factories shipping production materials back and forth across the border.

But if the Canadian economy is to really benefit from a second Obama administration, Canada’s politicians must move forward with a Beyond the Border program that emphasizes “costs and results” – keeping the cost of border improvements to a minimum while producing demonstrable results for travelers and businesses that produce savings in time, money and other resources.

The efficiency of the Canada-U.S. border has been compromised since 9/11. The past decade has seen a steady decline in the extent of travel and trade across the Canada-U.S. land border. Leisure trips by Americans driving into Canada have been nearly halved, falling to about 20 million car and bus crossings by 2010 from approximately 40 million crossings in 2000.

Before 9/11 more than 80 per cent of Canadian exports found their way into U.S. markets. After a decade of post-9/11 border thickening, the amount of U.S.-bound Canadian exports has fallen below 75 per cent. Some industries, like automobile manufacturing, which relies on integrated production processes that span both sides of the border, have been severely hindered and debilitated by border-crossing congestion.

To fix the problems that have plagued the border in the post-9/11 era, the Canadian and American governments signed several agreements over the past decade; the Beyond the Border accord is the most recent such agreement, signed in December 2011.

Unfortunately, while the vision outlined by the American and Canadian governments in the December 2011 agreement provides benchmarks, pilot projects, and timelines for measuring progress, it does not tie these guidelines to government expenditures or to cost reductions for businesses and travelers.

Both the Canadian and U.S. governments need to link specific border improvements and other expenditures to specific gains, as manifested in lower border crossing costs for businesses engaged in cross-border trade, as well as for individual travelers.  The two governments should avoid simply adding to existing security measures unless a new initiative can achieve demonstrable savings for travelers and business crossing the Canada-US border. Prime Minister Prime Minister Stephen Harper needs to engage with the newly re-elected U.S. president and have their respective administrations develop detailed descriptions of costs and expenditures for specific border programs and prospective security measures. The costs and expenditures need to be linked to both expected outcomes and timelines, but also need to be evaluated in terms of performance, namely, whether the expenditures made by the public sector are producing savings for individual travelers and traders. “Costs and results” based evaluations should be undertakn on a year-to-year basis, and subsequently made public.

The U.S. election has offered Ottawa the opportunity to successfully implement the Beyond the Border agreement. President Obama’s renewed mandate and Michigan’s vote in favor of a second Detroit-Windsor bridge should be used to reinvigorate the Beyond the Border process.

But Ottawa must be vigilant and keep the American side committed to the goals of a perimeter border and harmonization of many border regulations. Moreover, both the U.S. Congress and the Department of Homeland Security harbor interests that seek to add even more security measures to the shared border regardless of the cost to our economies. Ottawa will need to work closely with the White House to counter these vested interests.

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