Changes to US Border hours reduction not popular at town hall meeting

 

April 10, 2019

Mark Hebert

Bob Siversten, president of the 4 for 2, Highway 2 Association, was one of the many people to talk against a proposed reduction in hours of operation at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection at Port of Morgan last Wednesday in Malta.

A town hall meeting was held at the Great Nothern's Lodge Room in Malta last Wednesday, hosted by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CPB), to talk about a proposal to adjust hours of operation at four Montana ports of entry into Canada which would include the Port of Morgan in Loring, Mont., on Highway 191.

Everyone who spoke at the meeting who wasn't a CPB employee said they were not in favor of the proposed hours change as they felt it would hurt local business and tourism.

The four ports of entry into the U.S. along the Montana/Canada border where the CPB are suggesting a shortening of hours during summer months are The Port of Raymond, which currently operations 24-hours a day, but would see hours cutback to 6 a.m. to midnight; the port of Opheim, summer hours are 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. and would see those hours trimmed to 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.; the Port of Scobey would see the same reduction as Opheim, and the summer hours for the Port of Morgan would be cut in the summer from 8 a.m. until 9 p.m. to 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. which are that port's regular winter hours. A CPB press release informed travelers trying to cross the border at Port of Morgan when the border is closed "may cross at Turner, Montana, 130 miles west of Morgan via US-2 (US) and 63 miles via HWY-18 and HWY-37 (Canada)."

CPB Director of Field Operations Adele Fasano led the meeting and said that the proposed reduction in summer hours follows an 18-month study conducted by that outfit which showed a reduction in cars and trucks crossing the border in 19 locations in the northern US.

"The analysis showed the number of cars and trucks that are crossing by an hour of the day and it was determined that there are some periods of time where there was no crossing taking place," Fasano said. "Therefore, that calls into question whether we should be keeping these ports open during those hours. We are a public service and we are always looking for ways to get taxpayers some savings ... we are looking to eliminate the expanded summer hours because it has not been well utilized."

A slide Fasano showed during the meeting claimed that the Port of Morgan during the 18-month study showed a volume per day of 16 passenger cars, an average of four cars crossed during the expanded hours (that the CPB is looking to cut) and only two trucks crossed during the entire summer season of extended hours in 2018. Fasano said since 2013, the total number of cars crossing has decreased by closeto 20-percent and for commercial traffic, the decrease at the same time has been down by 85-percent. Fasano said that having the Port of Morgan open for the extended hours in the summer costs taxpayers about $120,000 in overtime each year, adding that it is hard to find people to work at the port (summer hours currently run from June 1 through mid-September.)

Of the people who spoke about the proposal - about 50 people including local leaders and leaders from Canada attended the meeting - each said they were not in favor of reducing the hours, most pointing to losses for local business and events held in Phillips County.

Malta Mayor John Demarais said he has lived in Phillips County all his life and the proposed reduction in hours is something that upsets many local residents.

"Nobody put any thought into this," Mayor Demarais said. "It leaves us sitting here wondering 'what about rural Montana?' If you (make this change) it will decimate our racetrack (Phillips County Motorsports) which is a really big thing here in Malta. I guarantee you, everyone sitting here today agrees with me."

One member of the audience questioned the numbers from the nearly 18-month survey sample the CPB used to recommend the reduction in ours, saying that at the time the data was taken that roads in the area were mostly gravel-topped and pot-hole ridden, but since then have become paved and improved. She asked the CPB to consider recalculating the car and truck numbers since the improvements have been and are being made.

"They are going to finish the road all the way from Cadillac to the border this summer," she said. "If you could postpone your decision and perhaps wait a couple of years, then revisit your numbers, I think these numbers may increase over time with better accessibility to the border crossing."

Phillips County Commissioner Bruce Christofferson agreed that he also believes that traffic through the Port of Morgan will increase following improved road conditions and said that the commissioners are absolutely against the reduction in hours, adding that he feels the reduction of hours will hurt farmers, ranchers, and local businesses as well as the Phillips County Motorsports who run events in Malta on weekends in the summer.

"The way the current hours are (for drivers headed south to Phillips County from Swift Current, Canada) they can leave work on a Friday night at 5 p.m. and cross at 6 p.m. to get here and race the next day," Commissioner Christofferson said. "If those hours change, they can't make it to the border in time to race, which will cost this local economy hundreds of thousands of dollars. If those hours change, we are going to lose that racetrack."

Rick Starkey of Phillips County Motorsports (which is non-profit) said that losing motorsports enthusiasts from Canada because of the reduction in hours would cost business in Phillips County about $300,000 per summer.

"For all those cars that don't come across, that means less money for this hotel (Great Northern) or any other motel that they stay at, the gas stations, and other businesses," Starkey said. "And when that road is completed, the truck traffic is bound to come back too."

The CPB press release (which ran in the pages of the PCN) states the changes would take place April 14 for the four ports and many who were at the meeting to speak out against the changes said they felt as the changes were going to be made despite their protests (the Malta meeting was the fourth such town hall held near the port locations) as the date for a decision was only days away. Director Fasano said that date was incorrect and the deadline for the decisions on the ports will come on June 1 of this year.

Those in attendance from Phillips County at the meeting included Phillips County Commissioner Christofferson, Malta Mayor Demarais, Malta Councilman David Rummel, Phillips County Extension Agent Marko Manoukian, Malta Area Chamber of Commerce and Malta Merchants Executive Director Ann Sautter, Dylan Bergos and Starkey representing Phillips County Motorsports and many local business owners including Doug and Rhonda Simanton, Bob Ereaux, and Julie Snellman. Both US Congressman Greg Gianforte and US Senator John Tester had representatives at the meeting, voicing their support against a change of hours. The meeting also included several Canadians who came to the meeting to voice their opposition to the reduction of hours.

Fasano said all the comments made at the four port meetings will be recorded and taken into considerations before a final decision is made. Anyone wishing to comment on the adjustment of hours can do so via email at: OFOFEEDBACKMT@cbp.gov.

 

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