THIEF RIVER FALLS, Minn. - When southbound travelers on U.S. Highway 59 drive into Thief River Falls, one of the first things they see is Petro Pumper.
The gas station sits at the mouth of the traffic collector that eventually feeds into the port of entry to Canada near Lancaster, Minn.
“Our Canadian traffic is a big part of our business,” Petro Pumper owner Pat Gerszewski said.
That’s why Gerszewski and other business owners along the Highway 59 corridor filled the Lancaster Community Center Monday, Nov. 6, to voice their concerns on a move to reduce hours at the Lancaster and Roseau, Minn., ports. Citing decline in traffic over several years, U.S. Customs and Border Protection proposed changing the Roseau closing time from midnight to 8 p.m. and Lancaster’s closing time from 10 p.m. to 4 p.m.
Those proposed cutbacks could take effect Jan. 7, meaning travelers who typically cross at Lancaster would have to drive 30 miles west to the Pembina, N.D., port of entry for 24-hour border-crossing access. Roseau crossers would need to drive 21 miles east to Warroad, Minn.
The proposed changes are not a done deal, CBP spokesman Jason Givens said in an email. The agency still is collecting input before it makes a final decision. Comments can be sent to Lancastermailbox@cbp.dhs.gov or Roseaucbp@cbp.dhs.gov.
Gerszewski fears drivers would bypass Thief River Falls and anyone on Highway 59, effectively taking a large chunk of business out of operations after 4 p.m.
He said he is afraid the move will change traffic patterns on the highway and may start a chain of events that could lead to the complete closure of the ports.
“It is the shortest route from Winnipeg to Minneapolis,” he said of Highway 59. “It’s pretty much turning Highway 59 into a dead-end road.”
Lancaster and Roseau fall toward the middle of the pack when it comes to international traffic in the Grand Forks CBP sector, which covers 861 miles of international border in North Dakota and Minnesota. The Grand Forks sector oversees 25 ports of entry in North Dakota and Minnesota.
Numbers for border crossings from Canada at both stations have fluctuated up and down in recent months. For August, Lancaster saw 3,800 passenger vehicles come in from Canada, a 20 percent increase from last year, according to CBP reports. Truck traffic was down almost 32 percent from last year, counting 362 trucks in August.
Roseau processed 4,128 passenger vehicles in August from the north, almost 10 percent less from last year, the CBP said. About 500 trucks went through that port in August, an 8 percent jump from last year.
The two ports were identified for cutbacks to “more efficiently align our resources to meet the demands of ports of entry with higher traffic volumes, thus increasing border security,” Michele James, CBP director of field operations in Seattle, said in a statement.
“Minimal traffic after 4 p.m. and 8 p.m., along with fiscal responsibility with taxpayer money, were a determining factor for the adjustment of hours at Lancaster and Roseau,” James said. “Our analysis of traffic data from the past five fiscal years shows that the ports of Roseau and Lancaster would be minimally impacted by an adjustment of hours.”
Lancaster and Roseau are not alone. The CBP adjusted hours at 13 ports across the U.S. in fiscal year 2017, Givens said.
The agency said cargo and passenger traffic from Canada have steadily declined at the two ports since fiscal year 2013.
Roseau has seen a 19 percent decrease in personal vehicles and a 37 percent drop in commercial vehicles in the last five fiscal years, according to the CBP. Lancaster has seen a drop of 33 percent in all traffic during that time, the CBP said.
Lancaster averages three personal vehicles and 0.4 commercial vehicles per hour after 4 p.m., according to the CBP. Roseau’s numbers are even lower, averaging 1.4 personal vehicles and 0.4 commercial vehicles after 8 p.m.
Gerszewski said he doesn’t buy that line of reasoning for cutting back on hours.
He is the co-owner GrandStay Hotel and Suites in Thief River Falls. He also owns Falls Stay N Play, a campground that features a go-kart track, mini-golf and arcade.
People who work until 5 p.m. won’t be able to use the ports on Fridays if they want to come down for a weekend getaway. He believes travelers will take Interstate 29 or other routes, which will bypass the Highway 59 corridor.
“It’s going to hurt our whole community,” he said, adding he believes the move will affect businesses all the way down to Detroit Lakes.
The Thief River Falls Chamber of Commerce, as well as business representatives from other communities, filled the Lancaster Community Center to oppose the changes. In a room with about 250 chairs, it was standing room only, said Ashley Nerhus, executive director of the Chamber.
“We are concerned about that because Canadian visitors are very important to Thief River Falls and a lot of other communities, both north and south of us,” Nerhus said. “We feel that if they close that at 4 p.m. instead of 10 p.m., they will be less likely to visit Thief River Falls.
Gerszewski also was impressed by the number of Canadians who voiced their concerns.
“All of the Canadians stood up, and about 10 to 15 percent of the people there were from Canada and were upset about it,” he said. “They want that border crossing left open.”
Pushback from governor, Congress
Gov. Mark Dayton strongly opposed the proposal this week in a letter to CBP Director Jason Schmelz. The changes would “cause significant health, safety and economic harm to Minnesotans who live and travel in those and surrounding communities,” he wrote.
“Your announcement regarding the reduced hours has left little time for negatively affected Minnesotans to respond,” Dayton wrote in the letter. “I ask you to consider carefully the comments provided by Minnesotans at those meetings.”
Several members of Congress also have expressed concerns about the cutbacks, including U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn. He said the CBP should have consulted Roseau and Lancaster residents long before making the reduction decision.
“Ever since the decision was made, my office has received a flood of messages from folks who believe this is a real bad idea,” he said in a letter read at the town hall meetings. “The benefits of shifting Customs personnel and reducing hours simply don’t outweigh the negatives.”
Gerszewski’s main concern is the cutback will lead to a slippery slope of declining traffic.
“Now in five years, they are going to turn around and say our traffic count is lower yet,” he said. “In five years from now, they are going to want to totally shut down those border crossings.”
The CBP does not anticipate it will close the ports at Roseau or Lancaster, Givens said.