University of Toronto professor and Creative Class guru Richard Florida co-authored an October 2007 report that concluded that mega-regions have become “the real economic engines of the global economy.”
Stretching from Quebec City to London, Ontario, to Utica, Florida’s group identified “Tor-Buff-Chester” as the fifth largest mega-region in North America. This bi-national Great Lakes economy boasts over 22 million residents, and its annual economic activity exceeds a half-trillion dollars.
The U.S. border with Canada is the weak link in the Tor-Buff-Chester chain. This economic juggernaut is awkwardly connected by four bridges in the Buffalo-Niagara region, only two of which accommodate commercial traffic. Post-9/11, an amalgam of nationalism, political stasis and complicated legal concerns put the brakes on efforts to speed border clearance for passenger and commercial traffic. NEXUS, the bi-national trusted traveler program, has shown that security needs can be balanced with a desire for speedy crossings.
Until recently, Western New York’s outreach to Canadian governments and businesses had been inconsistent. For almost a decade the federal government rejected the notion of U.S. inspection on the Canadian side of the Peace Bridge due to concerns about jurisdiction and sovereignty. This seemed ridiculous, considering that air travelers to the U.S. are now pre-screened by American agents at Caribbean and Irish airports. How can Dublin accomplish what Fort Erie cannot?
New York’s connections to Ontario need to be improved physically as well as legally. As part of a new pilot program, American agents will pre-screen commercial traffic crossing the Peace Bridge to Buffalo, but Europe’s Schengen treaty provides an outline for the discussion that Americans and Canadians should be having.
While we focus negative attention on our southern border, Americans ignore ways to improve and better manage the frontier we share with our largest trading partner. Often-contradictory security, immigration and commercial needs should be tackled head-on, and new thinking is needed.
For the movement of people, high-speed rail is an idea whose time has come. Modern trains and new infrastructure would shrink travel times between Toronto, Buffalo and Rochester from hours to minutes. It would be perfectly reasonable for a person to live in one metropolitan region and commute daily to another—live in Amherst, work in Mississauga.
A customs union with Canada eliminating all duties and tariffs on goods crossing our northern border would allow both countries to focus instead solely on immigration and security matters. In order to better facilitate economic integration and the cross-border movement of people, a new visa category would need to be created. A non-resident work visa category would open up Tor-Buff-Chester to a new world of possibilities. It would enable companies to tap labor markets on either side of the Niagara River, helping employers, employees and entrepreneurs alike.
Under a North American Schengen, there would be no more formal passport controls between the U.S. and Canada; however, external borders would be harmonized and tightened. Law enforcement on either side of the border would be temporarily free to re-establish individual border controls when necessary, and their police powers would be geographically expanded. All points of entry to the treaty nations would be jointly operated by American and Canadian law enforcement.
Harmonization of American and Canadian customs and immigration rules and enforcement is politically unlikely due to concerns about security and sovereignty. However, it shouldn’t be a taboo subject if the goal is commercial liberalization and economic growth.
Unfettering workers, employers, manufacturers and entrepreneurs to live, work and sell freely on either side of the border would truly integrate the Tor-Buff-Chester mega-region, and lead to an unprecedented cross-border economic and intellectual boom. Greater integration of these two economies shouldn’t be hamstrung by four bridges and 20th century border procedures.
Alan Bedenko is a partner at Feldman Kieffer, LLP, and since 2003 has written a political blog under the name Buffalopundit.
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