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U.S. senators seek an end to traffic jams at Canada-U.S. border

Lining up at Fort Erie, Ont. waiting to cross over the Peace Bridge into Buffalo. Cars facing left are heading back to Canada.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The nominee to become America's border boss was pressed at his confirmation hearing Wednesday to get vehicles flowing faster at traffic-clogged Canada-U.S.. checkpoints.

Gil Kerlikowske faced only a few questions about Canada during the Senate hearing into his appointment to lead the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency.

The questions he did face about the northern border were about increasing trade, not about adding new layers of security.

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"There's a pent-up demand on both sides," said finance committee chairman Max Baucus, arguing that more checkpoints be staffed and kept open at the border in his own state, Montana.

Kerlikowske, a former police officer and ex-drug czar in the Obama administration replied: "I'm very much aware, having been to Montana several months ago. That was made very apparent to me."

Kerlikowske offered a similar answer when pressed by New York Sen. Charles Schumer about the jammed Peace Bridge at Buffalo .

Schumer expressed frustration that wait times at that crossing rose sharply last year for both commercial and private vehicles. Peak wait times can be close to a half hour.

He pushed the nominee to allocate resources from a new budget deal to the Peace Bridge, along with New York City's JFK airport.

"Toronto is booming," Schumer said.

"There are hours and hours and hours of waiting. That's clearly unacceptable. A lot of Canadians come shopping in Buffalo, because of the exchange rates. (This) is a deterrent."

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Businesses in both Canada and the U.S. are pushing for what they call an "intelligent" border, which could speed traffic by streamlining crossing procedures and reducing red tape.

John Manley, head of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, has said security worries have managed to slow down traffic without nabbing more terrorists than could fit in a phone booth.

If the security-conscious U.S. has been fixated on the dangers of its borders since 9-11, those fears were secondary to trade concerns at the Senate hearing.

Kerlikowske was asked two questions about the Canadian border, both about facilitating the flow of traffic.

By contrast he was asked two others about the Mexican border and both of those dealt with security.

He was also questioned about counterfeit goods, privacy rights, the use of new technology, and racial profiling.

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When Kerlikowske listed four of his priorities for the job, they tilted toward commerce.

He dropped references to security threats and illegal drugs that had been included in his prepared remarks.

In those written remarks, which he condensed in his actual presentation, the first item on the priority list was traffic: "Time is money, not only for cargo but also for international travellers who wish to visit the United States. These visitors create tremendous economic growth and support jobs."

At one point, he was asked whether the absence of security items on his priority list meant he wasn't concerned about safety. He insisted that remained a priority, too.

The nomination appears nearly guaranteed.

In fact, Kerlikowske spent part of his hearing fielding compliments from lawmakers on both sides of the partisan aisle.

One described him as a perfect candidate for the job, "straight out of central casting."

Senators from Washington State and New York credited his past work as a police chief in Seattle and Buffalo.

The top Republican on the committee, Orrin Hatch, said: "You're going to get off easily. Because I think very highly of you."

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