OTTAWA - More early inspection of cargo heading to the United States through northern border crossings will be a feature of the new continental security deal, says the U.S. homeland security secretary.
Janet Napolitano told the U.S. Senate judiciary committee this week the Canada-U.S. perimeter security pact would help ease congestion by pre-screening trucks on the Canadian side of the border at the Peace Bridge and other major crossings.
"We really are very interested in how we can expedite the free flow of goods on both borders, northern and southern, and looking at ways where we can do pre-inspections, if not actual pre-clearance, on the Canadian side," she added.
Napolitano was responding to questions from U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, who has been among those pushing for measures to unclog traffic at the Peace Bridge linking Buffalo, N.Y., and Fort Erie, Ont.
The Peace Bridge and the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge across the Niagara River — respectively the third- and fourth-busiest commercial crossings in the U.S. — handle $30 billion in commerce between the two countries, Schumer noted.
"But my office has been fielding lots of complaints from business leaders, average citizens, about the time it takes for commercial traffic to enter the U.S. from Canada," he told Napolitano.
"There's plenty of space on the Canadian side. If we could do the inspections on the Canadian side, which everybody wants, it would be good."
Schumer was quick to publicly hail the homeland security chief's promise — the latest sign that announcement of the perimeter security pact is imminent.
"The Peace Bridge’s clogged arteries are about to undergo bypass surgery," Schumer said in a statement after the committee meeting.
"Moving this traffic to the Canadian side will be a shot in the arm for tourism, businesses throughout Western New York and our overall economy. No longer will tourists and trucks be stuck for eons in smog-creating lines as they try to cross the bridge."
The perimeter security deal, as outlined to The Canadian Press by several sources, includes about $1 billion in spending on border-post infrastructure and information-sharing programs to bring Canada more closely in line with the U.S.
The Beyond the Border action plan will bolster common identification of security threats, align the countries' food and auto industries, and reduce red tape for cross-border shippers and frequent travellers, said sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the deal has not been publicly announced.
Schumer's statement said he expects the 32-point agreement to be signed next month, clearing the way for smoother flow of traffic across the Peace Bridge.
"Currently, 100 per cent of all trucks must go through a congested screening process on the American side of the border. Under the plan set to be announced next month, 90 per cent would be fully cleared on the Canadian side, with approximately 10 per cent requiring additional screening in the United States," Schumer said.
"Suspicious vehicles entering the U.S. will be flagged as they came onto American soil, and made to undergo additional screening at the U.S. port of entry before entry could be permitted."
A Canadian press release on the perimeter security agreement was drafted weeks ago. But sources say the two governments are still working out details of an announcement.
The Conservatives continue to push for a high-profile joint signing by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and U.S. President Barack Obama.
"Everything's done," said one source. "And it would have been announced if the Canadians would've been OK with a cabinet-level or working-level announcement. But they want their meeting."
A U.S. Department of Homeland Security spokesman was not immediately available to discuss the announcement's timing.