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Vehicles crossing the border tunnel from Windsor, Ont., stop at U.S. custom booths in downtown Detroit in this photo from March 1, 2013. (REBECCA COOK/REUTERS)
Vehicles crossing the border tunnel from Windsor, Ont., stop at U.S. custom booths in downtown Detroit in this photo from March 1, 2013. (REBECCA COOK/REUTERS)

U.S. Congressman stands up against proposed border toll: ‘It ain’t gonna happen’ Add to ...

U.S. Congressman Brian Higgins has a message for fellow government officials who are wondering whether they could charge Canadians a fee to cross the border: “It ain’t gonna happen.”

Mr. Higgins represents a swath of Western New York that includes Buffalo, and he has been rallying fellow representatives of U.S. border communities to oppose any type of charge. The idea surfaced in a budget request by the Department of Homeland Security to study a new toll.

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The notion of taxing travellers between the two countries drew swift condemnation from business and political leaders in Canada as well as the United States last week, and it increasingly seems doomed to fail as the push-back picks up steam.

“I am going to fight this very, very aggressively and I have a lot of allies, so I’m confident that in the end this will be defeated,” Mr. Higgins told CTV in an interview Sunday.

That’s the same signal Perrin Beatty, president and CEO of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, has received as his organization lobbied hard against any such charge. In an interview, he called it “a revenue grab” aimed at “picking the travellers’ pockets.”

“The feedback that we’ve had in the past week as we’ve raised the issue has been positive. We are hearing from people within government in the U.S. – I can’t be explicit about this – that they don’t think this will happen, that they think the public reaction to it is sufficiently bad that it won’t proceed,” Mr. Beatty said. “But I don’t think anybody should be letting up.”

Mr. Higgins said it isn’t yet clear how much travellers would be charged if such a fee were passed. But Mr. Beatty contends even a modest $5 toll could have an impact. “Who can say where the straw is that breaks the camel’s back, but what it does is it just makes the border that much more costly, sticky and thick,” he said.

That U.S. bureaucrats might consider such a step is not entirely surprising at a time when they face massive budget challenges combined with calls for immigration reform. In fact, it’s an idea the United States “trots it out periodically,” according to Robert Wolfe, a professor of policy studies at Queen’s University.

But opponents of the fee say it would cause widespread economic harm, and Mr. Beatty said he believes it would dent the $1-million worth of cross-border commerce that takes place each minute. “It’s particularly going to be felt on day trips that people are taking,” he said, such as those paying short visits to tourist attractions like the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., or the hundreds of nurses in Windsor who cross daily to work at Detroit-area hospitals.

Mr. Higgins suggested that 25 per cent to 30 per cent of his district’s retail economy comes from Canadian shoppers, and that the Buffalo Sabres NHL club and Buffalo Bills NFL franchise wouldn’t survive without help from a southern Ontario fan base. “We should be removing barriers to access to and from Canada, not erecting new ones,” he told CTV, emphasizing that he has broad backing from Democrats as well as Republicans who oppose the toll.

Dr. Wolfe warned the study “would be quite dangerous” if it goes ahead, as it shows no intent to measure the wider economic impact of such a move. But he said he thinks Canadians who hope the plan can be stopped in its tracks have powerful allies.

“Oftentimes when Canadians find something going on in the United States difficult, our best allies are border-state politicians, because their constituents vote and ours don’t,” Dr. Wolfe said.

Follow on Twitter: @jembradshaw

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