A drive-thru border crossing? Canada tests the idea of automated entry

Canadian cars heading into the U.S. line up at the Peace Arch border crossing in Blaine on Jan. 28, 2013. Border traffic in 2016 has been way down despite a recent rally of the loonie.
Canadian cars heading into the U.S. line up at the Peace Arch border crossing in Blaine on Jan. 28, 2013. Border traffic in 2016 has been way down despite a recent rally of the loonie.

First there were automated drive-through carwashes. Then automated drive-through banks. Now, the Canadian government is experimenting with an automated drive-through border crossing.

While the fate of the wall along the U.S.-Mexico border promised by President-elect Donald Trump remains uncertain, Canada is carrying out a pilot project with an opposite aim: to use the latest technology to ease the flow of traffic across the United States’ northern frontier.

If you drive into the province of Quebec via the crossing at Morses Line, Vt., after 4 p.m. on any day, no live Canadian customs agent will stop and interrogate you. Instead, a gate opens and you drive into a large, garage-like building. There, under the gaze of several TV cameras, you are invited by a customs officer to insert your passport or other border ID into a document reader and are asked the usual questions put to visitors seeking to enter Canada.

The customs officer addressing you over a microphone is located at a service center operated by the Canadian Border Services Agency in Hamilton, Ontario, 435 miles away.

“So far, it’s going very well. We’ve seen an increase in the use of the border crossing,” said Dominique McNeely, a spokesman for the agency. The experiment’s budget is $16 million Canadian, or just under $12 million U.S., most of which has been spent on the new building and its high-tech equipment. The year-long pilot program ends in a couple of months, at which time it will be decided whether to expand it to include other small crossings.

A total of 117 crossings dot the U.S.-Canada border, which stretches 5,525 miles from Maine to Alaska. The bulk of the traffic uses a dozen crossings near big Canadian cities, but there are many secondary crossings, like Morses Line, that mostly serve local populations whose economic and family ties across the frontier date back generations.

“It’s tough to shut them down, but they’re expensive to staff,” said Bill Andersen, director of the Cross-Border Initiative at the University of Windsor in Ontario. “You have small towns that depend on them being open.”

Yvon Dandurand, a trucker and a selectman for the municipality of Franklin, Vt., is a fourth-generation American. His great-grandfather came over from Quebec and bought a farm on the Vermont side of the border. But he crossed the border to find a Canadian bride, as did Yvon’s grandfather, father and Yvon himself. “Ninety percent of my family is in Canada,” he said. “There’s a lot of French Canadian families in Franklin, and they have lots of relatives back in Canada.”

Gone are the days when the border was more or less open, especially for local people. “If you crossed when there was nobody there, you were supposed to report to the nearest open land border” crossing, Dandurand said. Many didn’t bother. Security has been beefed up, especially since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, and passports are now required.

Morses Line has been eyed by government cost-cutters on both sides of the border for years. In 2011, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security proposed closing its border point there, noting that as few as 40 vehicles a day used it. Local residents lobbied hard to have the decision overturned, only to find the Canadian government cutting back hours of operation on its side. Instead of operating from 8 a.m. to midnight, the Canadian border point began closing at 4 p.m., and travelers were told to head to a much larger crossing eight miles away at Highgate Springs, Vt.

The union representing Canada’s 10,000 border guards thinks the automated-crossing experiment is a waste of money and a threat to security. “To cut two jobs, they’ve invested $16 million,” said Jean-Pierre Fortin, the union president. “We are the first line of defense for this country. Technology should be there to assist us, not to replace us.”

Fortin said that if criminals were to be flagged trying to enter Canada via the drive-through, they could easily abandon their cars and escape on foot, with no guard around to stop them. Also, he says, there is no way a camera can determine whether a driver has been drinking and driving. The Border Services Agency says that no jobs have been lost, since the alternative was a border that was closed 16 hours a day, and that the automated post is more secure than simply having a gate across the highway.

Even if the pilot is judged a success, the automated system won’t work at all 75 of the small and remote Canadian crossings. A key condition is the presence of a nearby crossing that’s still staffed with agents who can swing by the drive-through if a problem arises. In addition, the automated system can be used only by Canadian and U.S. citizens and permanent residents. Visitors from other countries must go to a conventional crossing.

Dandurand, who lobbied for the U.S. border post to remain open, thinks the Canadian experiment is working well, and he’s pleased that he can cross after hours. The process is relatively quick, he said, adding that what takes the longest time is for the two heavy gates to be opened to allow your vehicle to proceed.

On the occasions when a live agent is called in, the process is not greatly delayed, he said. “It happened to my sister not too long ago. It took them 15 minutes to get there. It was a five- or six-minute inspection, and they released her. They’re just doing their job.”