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U.S. insists passports will be required for Canada land/sea travel starting in Jan. 2009

The Associated Press and Seattle Times travel staff

WASHINGTON - The new rule that anyone driving across the Canadian border must have a passport or passport card will "absolutely" begin in January, government officials say, refuting a New York senator's claim the plan will be delayed.

Lawmakers from border states, including Washington, have been trying for months to stall or alter the plan to require the more secure identification documents, contending the rule will hurt trade and tourism.

The Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative was created by Congress to tighten security on both the Canadian and Mexican borders, but many members are now fuming at the notion their constituents will need a $97 dollar passport or a not-yet-developed passport card, expected to cost around $50. Currently, air travelers must have a passport when flying to and from Canada; starting in January a passport would be required for land and sea travelers (including ferries)..

Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer of New York predicted the government won't be able to start in January, but Department of Homeland Security officials insist they will.

"We have a firm deadline and we're absolutely committed to moving forward with the implementation of western hemisphere travel requirements at our northern border," DHS spokesman Russ Knocke said on Friday. Traveler also will be required to carry a passport when they enter the U.S. from Mexico.

The agency does not have a date for people to start applying for the new passport cards, which are being created by the State Department, but Knocke said that would not affect the January launch.

Lawmakers have repeatedly passed legislation trying to delay the land-crossing requirements. On Wednesday, the House passed a measure designed to push back the starting date until 2009 or beyond.

But the administration is going ahead and Knocke rapped Schumer for fighting the security measure, launched after a recommendation from the 9/11 commission to make it harder for potential terrorists to use bogus documents to enter the United States.

"You can either be for security or against security," Knocke said, adding that some states have already begun discussions about creating new driver's licenses that would be so secure they could be used instead of passports.

Knocke said the agency has talked with state officials in Washington, Michigan, and Vermont about a driver's license program - though he added that should not be taken as a signal DHS is going to loosen its border requirements.

Currently drivers crossing the border can use photo ID such as a driver's license and proof of citizenship such as a birth certificate (or documents showing legal residency).

Source: The Seattle Times Company

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