Canada and the United States are closing in on a deal to allow vital workers to move easily from one country to the other, a key step in a series of agreements designed to ease border congestion.
"While there's a ways to go, we really have made some progress over the last few months" on the issue of temporary workers, American Ambassador David Jacobson told a gathering of Canadian business executives and American trade officials who met Tuesday to discuss border issues.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper and President Barack Obama launched the Beyond the Border initiative in February, which aims to improve trade by streamlining and dismantling regulations, while moving toward a continental approach to border security.
An action plan from the negotiating teams is expected by September. One issue that has surfaced repeatedly is that of temporary workers. Often, companies need the expertise of a worker in one country when equipment breaks down or a new factory goes up in the other. But visa regulations can make that temporary assignment difficult or impossible to achieve.
"If there is one thing we have heard consistently every time we have one of these discussions, it is the problem of getting temporary workers over," Mr. Jacobson said.
While some changes will require legislation, he added, "there's a lot that we've decided we can do administratively to dramatically streamline the process."
The President's Export Council, charged with helping Mr. Obama meet his pledge of doubling American exports over five years, met Tuesday for the first time outside the U.S. at a gathering hosted by the Canadian Council of Chief Executives.
The American officials got an earful from Canadian business leaders fed up with unstaffed checkpoints, arcane visa rules and decaying infrastructure that they said is hurting business, dampening growth and costing jobs.
Ford Canada estimates that each truck crossing the border with vehicle components is now delayed by an hour, and some components cross the border six times as a car is manufactured.
It produces "a huge level of inefficiencies in our industry," said David Mondragon, president and CEO of Ford Canada.
In the Beyond the Border negotiations, Canada is seeking to convince the United States to ease restrictions thrown up in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. In exchange, Mr. Harper has committed to a unified, continental approach to securing both countries' borders, something the NDP and other critics warn could seriously compromise Canadian sovereignty.
Executives representing the auto sector, agri-business, petroleum and other industries were essentially unanimous in what they want to see in the action plan when it is released.
Along with easing the passage of temporary workers, pre-clearance is top of the list. Inspecting and sealing trucks at the factory, the cost of which major companies have said they are willing to bear, would allow trucks to then whisk across the border without inspection.
"People feel we have to move to a system where trusted shippers are trusted," said Roy Norton, Canada's Consul General in Detroit.
Standardized environmental, quality and safety regulations would allow manufacturers to produce a single product for the entire North American market.
But Mr. Jacobson warned that harmonizing regulations must not "lower the level of regulation to the lowest common denominator. If that's what we try to do, there will be enormous kick-back, as there probably should be," he said.
There would be kick-back on both sides of the border, agreed John Manley, who heads the Canadian Council of Chief Executives.
A single set of custom regulations for both countries would go a long way to easing congestion, the executives agreed. And as one executive pointed out, empty customs booths at bridges and tunnels simply add to congestion and costs.
This being Windsor, there were many complaints about the inability to get approval for a new bridge linking the city to Detroit.
As former Michigan governor and ambassador to Canada James Blanchard observed lobbying and other forms of persuasion by the owners of the existing Ambassador Bridge lies behind the Michigan legislature's refusal to approve the bridge.
"We're dealing with lots of campaign contributions that are perfectly lawful, but certainly I think corrupt the system," he told the gathering.
The action plan will attempt to ease border congestion and improve continental security through recommendations that should mostly be achievable through changes to regulations.
But the most substantial and far-reaching proposals may require parliamentary and congressional approval. With 2012 an election year in the U.S., trucks could continue to idle at the border for some time to come.
Canada and U.S. trade by the numbers
Total trade between Canada and the United States in 2010: $520-billion
Daily trade across Canada-U.S. border: $1.5-billion
Portion of that trade represented by the auto industry: 20 per cent
Number of times some auto components cross the border before a car is made: 6
Estimated cost to a domestically manufactured car caused by border delays: $200, according to Ford Canada.