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Border post losing its Canadian partner; stimulus millions on hold

By Drew Griffin, CNN Special Investigations Unit
The crossing into Canada at Whitetail, Montana, sees little traffic.
The crossing into Canada at Whitetail, Montana, sees little traffic.
  • Whitetail, Montana, is a rarely used border crossing
  • Five or fewer vehicles use the crossing either way on an average day
  • Canada is planning to shut its side of the border post next year
  • A stimulus spending project to rebuild the U.S. border station has been put on hold

(CNN) -- An $8.5 million stimulus spending project to rebuild a little-used Montana border station is on hold because the station could become an outpost on a one-way street.

Canada has decided to shut down its side of the Whitetail, Montana, border crossing next year because fewer than five vehicles a day use the crossing. The decision comes at the same time the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is planning to spend spend the millions in stimulus funds to upgrade the border station.

The upgrade is part of a highly criticized decision last year that sent tens of millions of dollars in stimulus funds to revamp or rebuild border stations across Montana's northern border with Canada.

The crossing at Whitetail is the least used. Canada estimates five vehicles a day cross the border there. Vehicles crossing into the United States average as few as two a day at Whitehall, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection records.

The Department of Homeland Security has stressed the need for spending tens of millions of dollars in Montana to improve security along the border. But in light of Canada's decision, Customs and Border Protection spokesman Rafael Lemaitre says the government "is pausing construction at the Whitetail Port of Entry until September 1 in order to work with the Canada Border Services Agency to develop a joint solution that ensures the continued security interests of both countries."

The recent announcement by Canadian officials to close the station on their side of the border has brought sharp criticism about the stimulus spending plan from Montana's lone congressman.

Rep. Denny Rehberg, a Republican, released a statement saying, "Montanans aren't happy about how their tax dollars are being wasted." Rehberg has asked Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to once again review the plan to spend $8.5 million dollars on the border crossing, adding that its his job as a congressman to "safeguard tax dollars, and I'm making sure this boondoggle doesn't slip through the cracks."

Even Sen. Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat who last year was one of the biggest supporters of the plan to spend millions on Montana's border crossings, is now backtracking. Tester told CNN in August of 2009 that the spending would "pay off for generations to come by creating new jobs and opportunity that would benefit all of Montana."

A spokeswoman for Tester says the senator now is asking for construction to cease until another review can be conducted.

"A year ago, unilateral plans to close the Canadian side weren't part of the equation," Tester spokeswoman Andrea Heller told CNN. "The news that the Canadians are closing their side of the port changes the situation."

This is the second time plans for the Montana border stations have been put on hold.

Last year after CNN aired a report showing how little the state's border stations were used, the Department of Homeland Security announced it would review its plans.

The 60-day review ended with the announcement that the department was going ahead with its stimulus construction plan. It is not clear if anyone at Homeland Security discussed Canada's plans as part of that review.