HELENA, Mont. – A U.S. senator with an influential voice in the dispute over a little-used border post between Montana and Canada said Wednesday that officials should scrap an $8.5 million stimulus-funded upgrade and shut down the underused crossing.
Sen. Jon Tester said Canada, which surprised U.S. officials by closing its side of the Whitetail port this summer, was not interested in sharing a new station or fully reopening its side of the border. He said a renovation to the port going into Saskatchewan no longer makes sense.
The port is one of a few that services a rural and long stretch of the border in northeastern Montana. Residents say it is largely used by farmers who live in the area for trade and convenience.
Federal officials say they can't keep the border station open without modernizing security. Before terrorism became a chief concern, the station closed for the night by placing orange cones in the road.
"The border is only as strong as the weakest link. Quite honestly, we couldn't leave a sub-par station up there without the upgrade," the Democrat told The Associated Press. "What has happened since then is, Canada has said 'Well, we are not going to deal with it.'"
Tester said that Canada told U.S. officials it would remotely monitor its side of the port for just car traffic — if the Unites States paid for the technology at a cost of up to $1 million.
"What really kind of made the decision for me is that Canada was not going to be allowing trucks up from the U.S. It would just be car traffic only," Tester said. "I don't want to get into a position where we are paying for Canadian border protection services. I don't think that's a good precedent."
Last month, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials suspended construction based in part on Tester's recommendation. The senator lined up Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to visit, then held his own meeting last week with residents of the small town of Scobey.
Tester's stance is expected to carry weight with the federal officials who will make the final call. A spokesman for the border agency said federal officials are still weighing the options.
"We appreciate Senator Tester's input, and we will continue to work closely with our partners in Congress, state and local officials, as well as the Canada Border Services Agency, as we determine the best path forward regarding the future of the Whitetail port of entry, including any decision to close the port," said Rafael Lemaitre.
The episode underscores the criticism leveled against the U.S. government for spending more than $23 million in federal stimulus funding to upgrade that and four other Montana border posts.
U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, a Republican, has bashed the administration for launching the rehab in the first place. He recommended closure after holding his own public meeting on the issue, and said operating hours at nearby crossings could be expanded to accommodate farmers who might be inconvenienced by closing Whitetail.
"Construction on the Whitetail port should be stopped permanently, and not one more penny of taxpayer dollars should be spent modernizing a facility that serves only five cars per day," Rehberg said in a statement Wednesday. "It's what Montanans in Daniels County told me last month, and it's what the American people have been saying about wasteful spending for years."