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Fees derail plan for Vancouver-Seattle train

The Canadian border agency says it will charge an American passenger rail service more than half a million dollars in fees to add another train between Seattle and Vancouver - a decision that has derailed the plan.

Amtrak Cascades, which is funded by the Washington state government, planned to add a second daily run to and from Vancouver beginning in August of last year, continuing through to the 2010 Winter Olympics and beyond.

But Washington's Transportation Department says the proposal was put on hold when Canada Border Services Agency demanded $1,500 a day - more than $500,000 a year - to pay for extra staff to process passengers.

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The service has been stalled ever since.

Governments in Washington state and British Columbia, which are currently negotiating with the CBSA, are increasing pressure on the federal agency to scrap the fee altogether for a service supporters say could add millions of tourism dollars to the local economy.

"It's not a fee that's charged to any transportation program, no one else is being charged this fee," Vickie Sheehan of the Washington Department of Transportation said in an interview Tuesday.

"It's a big anticipated thing that wasn't planned for, so it's just been a monkey wrench."

Currently, an Amtrak train departs from Seattle in the morning and leaves Vancouver in the evening.

The proposed second run would leave Seattle at night, and bring passengers back from Vancouver in the morning. The additional run would also mean direct service to Vancouver all the way from Eugene, Ore.

The Canada Border Services Agency doesn't charge additional fees to process passengers on the current run, but the agency argues it would need to bring in extra staff for the evening crossing into B.C.

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The agency has said it would waive the fee immediately before, during and after the Olympics, but governments in Washington state and British Columbia say that doesn't go far enough to get additional trains on the tracks.

"Maybe the benefits don't accrue directly to CBSA, but there's all sorts of other economic activity," said Joan McIntyre, B.C's Minister of State for Intergovernmental Relations.

"To only open just before and after the Olympics, that's too little, too late. I'm delighted that they were able to give us that much leeway, but we want this train going now for the summer."

The Canada Border Services Agency wouldn't say whether it charges similar fees anywhere else in the country, but a spokeswoman defended the fee for the proposed Seattle-Vancouver run.

"The CBSA must take into account the costs of providing additional resources to clear travellers outside of its core hours of service," Patrizia Giolti said in an e-mail.

The federal government set aside an extra $1.9-million for the CBSA to cover Olympic-related costs between 2007 and 2011, according to the Treasury Board's website, although it's not clear how the rail proposal would fit into that.

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Last year, the B.C. government spent $4.5-million upgrading rail infrastructure specifically to accommodate the second Seattle-Vancouver run.

The Transportation Department estimates the added service could bring an extra 50,000 passengers a year to British Columbia, adding $14-million to the province's economy.

During the Olympics, Amtrak plans to use the second run, along with added cars on both trips, to handle the influx of people heading to and from the Games.

Politicians in Vancouver also want the fee dropped.

City councillor Suzanne Anton brought forward a motion yesterday asking the agency to waive the hefty fee against Amtrak. Ms. Anton, who puts the value of the added service at as much as $30-million to the local economy, said the issue should be a no-brainer.

"You really have to look at it as the broader economic argument for the whole region," said Ms. Anton, who expected her motion to pass unanimously

"It's kind of ridiculous that the train is being held up like this. There's no sense to it at all."

Stephen Pearce of Tourism Vancouver said the agency should at least waive the fee on a trial basis for a year and then evaluate the impact on the B.C. economy.

"It would give us so much more flexibility in terms of being able to book trips to Vancouver," said Mr. Pearce. "The impact would be substantial for us as a community."

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