HELENA, Mont. – If Canada makes good on its promise to shutter a little-used border post between Montana and Saskatchewan, there may be no choice but to close the U.S. side, even in the middle of an $8.5 million stimulus-funded upgrade, Sen. Jon Tester said Wednesday.
No decision has been made on the fate of Whitetail port, but a suspension of the renovation will continue while options are discussed, Tester told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from his farm in Big Sandy.
"I think it's going to depend on what Canada does. If Canada closes it, I don't see that we can have a one-way port," Tester said. "If they're willing to discuss (the options), that discussion needs to move ahead very quickly."
The Whitetail port could be kept open and the renovation salvaged if the Canada Border Services Agency closed its Port of Big Beaver and posted border officials with the Americans on the U.S. side, he said. A similar arrangement is already in place at the Sweetgrass crossing, Tester said.
But it's up to U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials to negotiate with their Canadian counterparts to see if such a solution is tenable — and ultimately, the border agency will make the final decision on whether Whitetail stays open or closed, he said.
Rafael Lemaitre, spokesman for the border agency, declined to be interviewed on Wednesday, instead releasing a statement that said the agency was working with Canadian border officials. Canadian officials also did not respond to interview requests.
Tester and fellow Montana Democrat Sen. Max Baucus were criticized in August 2009 for touting $77 million in stimulus funding for upgrades for five Montana border crossings that see relatively little traffic. The Whitetail port in particular was cited by critics as an example of wasteful spending — the crossing sees an average of five visitors per day and there is another one less than 20 miles away.
In April, Tester's office announced that the projects had been scaled back from $77 million to $23.5 million. The contracts were awarded and work began.
But in August, the Canada Border Services Agency announced it would close the "underused" Port of Big Beaver, across from the Whitetail Port, in April to close to make sure government money was being allocated to high-priority programs.
At the time, about $1.3 million had been spent or received on the Whitetail renovation that included new architectural design, asbestos removal, electrical rewiring, excavation and carpentry work, and the installation of fire alarms. Work on the renovation was halted while a review was ordered by Customs and Border Protection.
Tester and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano met last month with northeastern Montana residents who use the crossing. On Tuesday, Tester was in the town of Scobey to talk with the residents and farmers who use the border and see whether he could find consensus on whether the crossing should be closed.
There was none.
"We heard folks stand up and say, 'Close it, it's too much money,'" Tester said. "Others said they don't want to lose this piece of infrastructure.
"The economies of Montana, Alberta and Saskatchewan are pretty connected. One of the downsides of shutting the port down is that it will probably never open again," he added.
If the border is shut down, the remainder of the money that was supposed to go to the upgrade will likely be returned to the general fund, Tester said.
As for the contract with the company doing the upgrades, Tester said he couldn't answer how that would be resolved if the work was canceled. The main contractor, MCC Construction Corp. of Greenwood Village, Colo., did not return a call for comment on Wednesday.