March 16, 2007
OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) - The U.S. Department of Homeland Security will approve Washington state's pilot project for use of enhanced driver's licenses, rather than passports, by Americans crossing the border into British Columbia, but has rejected a plan for guards to use hand-held scanners to check regular licenses, officials said Friday.
State officials said the enhanced licenses could provide an alternative to the more expensive passport expected to be required for land and sea travel in June 2009.
The government's decision not to authorize the scanners means the state is out the $100,000 investment it made in the new technology.
At the request of Gov. Chris Gregoire, the Legislature is rushing through authorization of the optional enhanced license, which will incorporate proof of citizenship and Washington residency and allow search of federal databanks, including criminal records.
The licenses will cost $40, must be picked up in person at a driver's license office and should be available in January. In the meanwhile, until June 2009, regular licenses will suffice at the border crossings.
Michael Chertoff, secretary of the Homeland Security department, will travel here on March 23 to sign papers allowing the state to use the enhanced license as the country's first pilot project to test a cheaper, secure alternative to a $97 passport, said state Senate Transportation Chairwoman Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island.
Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke declined to confirm Friday that the agency has approved the enhanced license and rejected the scanner project. But he said Washington state is "at the forefront in putting forward an innovative program for licenses that can be more secure and fulfill the important security requirements we are working on."
The federal government is working closely with Washington on what could be a national model, he said, adding Michigan has begun work on a similar approach.
Canada will be asked to authorize a similar card for British Columbia, state officials said.
"The goal has been to continue having a driver's license as the border-crossing document, and Homeland Security is agreeing to pilot it and test it out," said Antonio Ginatta, executive policy adviser to Gregoire.
"We're really very excited," he said in an interview. "We think the passport is oppressive, expensive and may not enhance security. This one card will meet the security requirements of Homeland Security and it won't cost $97."
But he said the federal agency rejected a proposal by the state and the Canadian province for a three-month pilot project to test hand-held scanners that could read regular driver's licenses and access some databases, including security watchlists.
The state had secured some of the scanners from Port Townsend-based Mobalissa. Similar devices already are being used at some military installation gates.
The federal agency felt that approach would not access all necessary databases, Ginatta said.
After June 1, 2009, the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative will require Americans returning by land to the U.S. after short visits to Canada and Mexico to show passports or other high-tech ID cards.
Passports are already required for air travelers arriving in the United States from Canada and Mexico, including returning Americans.
Washington state and British Columbia together have 10 million residents and government leaders are trying to come up with a permanent alternative to the passport for land and ferry crossings.
Commerce and tourism could be hampered by the passport requirement, B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell said recently in a joint news conference with Gregoire. Campbell's office said one poll showed that one-third of Americans and Canadians who live near the border would be less likely to cross the border if the passport requirement stands.
Haugen said the state Senate will quickly approve the House-passed license bill next week, in time for Chertoff's visit.
"While we're disappointed we're not using the existing driver's licenses, which was the whole idea of the scanners, we don't want the pilot project to die," said Ken Oplinger, co-chairman of the Business for Economic Security, Trade and Tourism Coalition of the U.S. and Canada. He is also president and CEO of the Bellingham-Whatcom Chamber of Commerce & Industry.
Russ Veenema, executive director of the Port Angeles Regional Chamber of Commerce, said, "We realize we're not going to win the battle of trying to get (Homeland Security) to sign off on using existing licenses with existing technology, so at this point we will work with the powers-that-be to include money in the bill for a lot of public education.
"There is a lot of confusion out there," he added.
"Whether it's our area or Whatcom County or Detroit or anywhere along the border, it will affect our economy. We've already seen a steady decline of crossings across the border states," Veenema said.
Oplinger said the Whatcom County economy also depends heavily on Canadians crossing over to shop and the Vancouver Winter Olympic Games in 2010 will place heavy demands on the borders.
"It's huge to our economy," he said.
The license bill is House Bill 1289.