While there is still some work to be done, the expansion and upgrades at the North Portal border crossing are largely complete, and have been well-received by officials and travellers alike.
Scott Kienlen, the corporate chief for the southern Alberta and southern Saskatchewan district in the Prairie region for the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA), said the building constructions were completed in late December and border officials moved into their bi-level booths.
As part of the project, there are now three lanes for traffic coming into Canada.
“Previously coming into the country, we had one lane for cars, or small vehicles, and then one for commercial traffic, and there was a bit of a sharper left-hand turn to come in to be processed,” said Kienlen.
Each of the three lanes have the capability of handling any type of vehicle. It means there could be three lanes with cars, pick-up trucks or other light vehicles, or three lanes occupied by commercial trucks.
Since construction wrapped up, border wait times have dropped significantly, and everything is now within the service standards for CBSA, Kienlen said.
There is also an oversized lane.
“We did improve that a little bit, making it little bit wider, so that we can handle any type of wide dimensional or long dimensional loads,’ said Kienlen.
When motorists approach the crossing, it is more of a head-on approach. All of these changes have improved traffic flow.
“We’ve improved the signage and lighting and so on. Some of that still has to be done, but some has been done, so that’s helped as well,” said Kienlen.
They also marked the opening of their commercial warehouse, where they have enhanced ability to conduct examinations on commercial carriers.
“It’s working really, really well,” Kienlen said. “We changed the layout and the design here, and that’s working quite well with traffic flow.”
The travelling community and the trade partners have been impressed.
“We’ve been working out of some temporary structures for some time, and they’re glad to see the improvements,” said Kienlen.
During the winter periods, there won’t be a lot of construction happening. Once the warmer temperatures return in the spring, there will be some roadwork in the area.
“We need to continue working on some roadway and curbing and paving to tie into Highway 39 as you exit. Right now we have a temporary detour through our parking area to accommodate that, and then there will be some underground drainage pipes that need to be installed as well, and then to complete the staff parking area,” Kienlen said.
The goal is to have them completed by November, if the weather co-operates.
Overall, he estimates the project is about 80 per cent complete.
Kienlen pointed out that the last time the facility was upgraded was in the mid-1980s. Since that time, traffic patterns have gone through considerable changes.
“It was time for an upgrade, and that’s what we’re doing. From time to time, there may have been some border wait times, particularly with our commercial flow, just only having one lane, and this has totally reduced or eliminated that problem.”
As part of the federal government’s green initiative, the CBSA has installed a large solar wall on their drive-thru examination facility. He believes it’s one of the first in the country to be on a wall instead of a rooftop.
“We’re expecting to generate about 10-15 per cent for our commercial building with that,” said Kienlen. “So that’s kind of a neat feature that’s been added to this.”
The project had an estimated completion time of 30 months when it started in the spring of 2018. It has run a little bit longer than that, as there were some undocumented structures that were buried, thanks to small foundations leftover from previous customs buildings that were in place prior to the ones that were constructed in the 1980s.
“That did take some time to work through, some extra time, but for the most part, we’re doing okay,” said Kienlen.
The COVID-19 pandemic did not represent a big setback for the project. Measures were put in place for contractors and staff to maintain social distancing.
“For the most part, a lot of the construction, where there would have been close contact between contractors and staff, was prior to the pandemic, and anything after that, there are precautions that have been put in place,” said Kienlen.
A date for a ribbon cutting or a celebration hasn’t been set. It won’t happen until the project is complete or close to being finished, so it likely wouldn’t be until late fall. And obviously it would be dependent on any restrictions that might still be in effect.
But they’re pleased to have knocked down a couple of milestones on the project.
Kienlen is grateful to the travelling community, trade partners and the village of North Portal for their patience during construction.
“From time to time, there has been the odd, minor delay just as equipment moves around or different things, but for the most part, we’ve been able to keep going here 24-7, 365 days of the year,” said Kienlen.