Federal government eyes service cuts at Montana border crossing to Canada

by Tom Lutey

The federal government is once again considering cutting hours at Montana’s 24-hour port-of-entry with Saskatchewan.

Montana’s congressional delegation is joining trade groups in opposing the move, which they say is bad for the economy.

“Every day, the communities surrounding the Port of Raymond see trucks carrying grain, cattle, sugar beets, oil and countless other commodities that stop up and down Main Streets,” said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont. “This commerce brings sustainable businesses to hotels, restaurants and shops in Plentywood, Scobey, Froid, Culbertson and the other towns along the way. I am concerned that a reduction in hours at the Port of Raymond will push this commerce across the border and into North Dakota’s communities.”

Tester prepared his comments for a U.S. Customs and Border Patrol town hall meeting Thursday in Plentywood, where the senator will be represented by staff. Thursday, CBP spokeswoman Lynn Hurst said the agency will discuss a “test” closure period and ask meeting attendees for input about which hours of closure work best. Hurst said she couldn’t offer details about how long the port would operate under limited hours during the test.

Tester’s staff said CBP was working on closing the port for six hours a day. The Plentywood meeting comes less than two months after Customs and Border Patrol officials said there would be no reduction in hours. CBP last November proposed cutting Port of Raymond hours, but then backed off after Tester and Montana Republicans U.S. Sen. Steve Daines and U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke objected.

Daines’ staff said it learned of the CBP reversal a week ago. The cut hours were to be from 1 a.m. to 7 a.m. for 60 days beginning March 1.

In a letter to CBP Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske, Daines and Zinke said that more than 25,000 Montana jobs were related to Canadian trade, which made a 24-hour port crucial. Canada purchased about $564 million worth of Montana’s goods in 2014.

The Ports-to-Plains Alliance, which relies on the Port of Raymond as part of a trade corridor from Canada to Mexico said the volume of trade through Montana and North Dakota ports to Canada have growing importance to U.S. trade.

“The ports of entry serving the Ports-to-Plains corridors in Montana and North Dakota are serving a growing value of goods moving between the U.S. and Canada,” said Joe Kiely, Ports-to-Plains Alliance spokesman. “Between 2004 and 2014 the value of goods moving by truck from the 10-state Ports-to-Plains region through these ports have grown by 162 percent. Value of goods moving by truck through the Port of Raymond from the same region has grown 160 percent in the same period with exports increasing 455 percent.”

There have already been gates installed on the U.S. side of the crossing, said Mike Jensen, who owns Cousins Family Restaurant in nearby Plentywood. Jensen said word of the CBP town hall meeting has been slow to get out. The community’s weekly newspaper will first print the notice Thursday morning.

The CBP meeting in the basement of Montana State Bank will take place at 2 p.m.