Vehicles lined up beside the Peace Arch to cross the border into the U.S.

U.S. mulls fee on Canadians crossing border

Idea to be studied, but could add to waits, deter shoppers

Shoppers and other B.C. visitors driving south to Washington State may be dinged with a  border-crossing fee that U.S. officials are eyeing as a potential option to raise money.

There’s no indication yet how much it might be, but Canadians who go to the U.S. by air or sea already pay a $5.50 customs fee, which is often built into airline ticket prices.

The Department of Homeland Security is to study the idea and report back on its feasibility within nine months.

The directive to investigate indicates it would apply to all passenger vehicles and pedestrians crossing the border.

It doesn’t specify whether all occupants of a car would be charged, but that appears likely as it does indicate bus and train operators would be expected to charge their passengers.

Nor is it clear whether it would be levied both entering and leaving the U.S., or just in one direction.

Bellingham Chamber of Commerce president Ken Oplinger said he assumes the fee would apply on all motorists crossing the border – Nexus pass holders would not be exempt.

The potential toll on border crossers would generate new revenue for the department, which has been forced by arbitrary U.S. budget cuts to reduce customs staffing levels.

“We’re opposed to it,” Oplinger said, warning it could do serious damage to the Whatcom County economy.

He said the fee would annoy Canadians and deter some of them from coming south to shop, particularly South of Fraser residents heading across for gas and groceries.

But he said he’s most concerned the process of collecting the fee may add to the time needed to cross and dramatically lengthen border waits.

“If everyone has to stop now to dig around for change in order to cross the border, that’s going to increase the time,” Oplinger said. “That’s certainly going to make for longer lines.”

He said it’s possible separate fee collection points could be set up, rather than have it all done at the primary booth.

Fees on Canadians have been suggested before and Oplinger hopes they’ll be defeated again.

“This is a non-starter,” he said. “We don’t want to move down this path at all.”

The idea quickly came under fire from Lower Mainland shoppers on social media.

“This is a joke right,” tweeted Surrey resident Steven Sarai, while others said they’d never pay a fee to cross.

Several U.S. politicians in border states also oppose the idea, warning it would hurt the American economy if fewer Canadians visit.

The Surrey Board of Trade also opposes the idea, even though it wants to reduce cross-border shopping.

“This is not the solution,” said CEO Anita Huberman, adding the Surrey Board of Trade backs Canadian tariff policy reform so Canadian merchants can compete on a more level playing field with U.S. retailers.

“Our position at the board of trade is not to be protectionist at the borders.”

A poll conducted in February found nearly three-quarters of Metro Vancouver and Fraser Valley residents regularly cross the border to go shopping, with most citing lower prices in U.S. stores.