Ottawa and Washington will introduce legislation to allow customs officers to prescreen travellers who are crossing the border by bus, train or boat, as part of a long-delayed agreement aimed at reducing waiting times.
The deal announced Monday will replace a current agreement that allows only air travellers to be prescreened at eight Canadian airports before entering the United States. The goal of expanding the system to land and water crossings is to reduce bottlenecks and make it easier for more people to travel between the Canada and the United States, officials from both countries said.
While the agreement was applauded by organizations that promote Canada-U.S. trade, some noted that their goal of putting preclearance systems in place for the movement of goods and cargo – and not simply for individual travellers – would take much longer.
Currently, about 11 million passengers are precleared for flights to the United States each year, according to the Canadian government.
Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney and U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson signed the agreement at a news conference in Washington on Monday.
The two ministers did not provide details on how any new customs infrastructure would be financed. However, the Canadian government hinted that there could be a role for the private sector, noting in a news release that the new agreement "will allow the market to propose operations when and where it makes sense."
New legislation will be required in both countries to implement the agreement, Mr. Johnson and Mr. Blaney said.
The Canadian-American Business Council called the deal a "major step forward" in co-operation between the two countries. However, it noted that the agreement is only a legal framework, and does not detail how the concept might be applied to the cross-border movement of goods and cargo.
"What the governments are signalling is what they're focused on at the moment is passengers and people," said Maryscott Greenwood, a senior adviser with the council.
"That's really important; it's meaningful. It affects 400,000 Canadians and Americans every day. But in terms of what the Holy Grail is, for managing our space together, that's when we can get to comprehensive preclearance of cargo."
One of the challenges of running preclearance systems for cargo is that other government agencies, such as agriculture and health, may need to be involved, Ms. Greenwood said. She added that it will likely be up to individual facilities, such as bus and train stations, to determine whether they want customs agents to establish operations.
Mathew Wilson, vice-president of policy at Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters, said he toured a preclearance pilot project for commercial vehicles in Fort Erie this year and was impressed by the speed with which trucks were moving through. "If that's the outcome of this, that they roll it out more broadly, then certainly that would be a big help for Canadian exporters," he said.
Mr. Wilson said he would also like to see better infrastructure at the border, where some bridges are more than a decade old. Other improvements could include harmonizing the trusted trader programs and allowing customs documentation to be sent to officials electronically, he added.
Ottawa and Washington committed to expanding preclearance systems to land and sea travel four years ago as part of the Beyond the Border agreement. The two countries had initially planned to come to a legal agreement on the matter by late 2012, but missed that deadline by more than two years.
Land travel between Canada and the United States has declined over the past 15 years, amid tougher U.S. border security implemented after the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center. For example, about 5.8 million trucks crossed the border in 2014, down from 7.1 million in 2000, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics.