World Police and Fire Games an Olympics dress rehearsal

 

While the Pacific Northwest prepares for the grandeur and commotion of the 2010 Olympics, the lesser known, yet significant, World Police and Fire Games (WPFG) are sneaking up on us with surprisingly little fanfare. For Whatcom County, the impact of these games, in terms of traffic and border lineups, will be significant.

The WPFG, taking place in British Columbia from July 31 to August 9, is expected to attract 19,000 police, fire, and customs and border personnel, along with an entourage of 25,000 guests. The biennial event, which engages athletes in events ranging from the traditional (soccer, track, bodybuilding) to the unconventional (angling, wrist wrestling, pistol combat), has become the third largest sporting event in the world – behind only the Winter and Summer Olympics.

While the number of visitors will pale in comparison to the Olympics, the WPFG’s effect on the border will be considerable.

“Even though the estimated additional cross-border traffic generated by the WPFG is less than the estimates for the 2010 Winter Olympics, it is probably going to present a bigger challenge to cross-border throughput capacity,” says Hugh Conroy, Project manager for the International Mobility and Trade Corridor Project a coalition of government and business entities that identify and promote cross-border issues.

“This is because the WPFG will occur during what is traditionally the highest-volume border-traffic month, and the Winter Olympics occur during the lowest cross-border traffic volume month.”

During the Olympics, land-border traffic will increase by 2,200 cars a day from average February levels; it’s expected that approximately 8,400 cars a day will cross the border. The WPFG is only expected to increase traffic by 600 cars a day, but because it is occurring during the busy summer travel season, it will mean that, on peak days, more than 10,000 vehicles will be crossing at the Peace Arch and Pacific Highway crossings.

Jim Kohnke, a transportation consultant and executive director of the Pacific Corridor Enterprise Council, is concerned about the border difficulties we’re about to face in the summer of ’09.

“The increased traffic from the WPFG, along with new travel legislation, and construction at the border, will lead to a summer of border challenges,” says Kohnke.

One of the factors that concern Kohnke is the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI). As of June 1, 2009, the WHTI will require all persons crossing the border to show proof of citizenship in the form of a passport, NEXUS, or enhanced driver’s license. The initiative was implemented as a means to improve the security and efficiency of cross-border travel, but in the short term (for example, during the summer of 2009), is sure to cause confusion and backlogs.

As part of their long-term development plans, Canadian and U.S. borders are in the midst of significant facility upgrades: The U.S. Peace Arch crossing is being expanded to 10 lanes but will not be complete by the Olympics, let alone by the Police and Fire Games. There’s also construction on I-5 to increase the number of lanes leading to and from the borders, but again, it won’t be ready until after the WPFG. Unfortunately, the construction and road works may only exacerbate border delays during the summer.

While the increased number of tourists to the region will be a boon to some businesses, the accompanying border traffic will be hindrance for others. Clogged borders are bad for everyone – particularly for businesses doing cross-border trade. It’s estimated that border congestion and border policies, nationally, cost the Canadian and American economies between $7.52 billion to $13.20 billion a year. Border officials in the Pacific Northwest recognize the potential impact of increased summer traffic and have said that they are addressing the expected escalation with the deployment of new officers.

Coming at the height of the summer tourist season the World Police and Fire Games will stress and even test our borders; it will also be good dress rehearsal for the Olympics in 2010.

Let the Games begin.

 

Andy Radia also contributed to this column. K. David Andersson is a U.S. immigration attorney with offices in Vancouver, B.C., and Bellingham. Andy Radia is a B.C. based regional economist and journalist.

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