TORONTO - Ontario will join British Columbia in offering enhanced driver's licences as an alternative to a passport for residents who travel to the United States, despite claims by critics that the new system could be wide open for privacy abuses.

A government bill allowing the province to issue the high-tech licences and photo ID cards passed in the Ontario legislature Tuesday, with only the New Democrats voting against the legislation.

"The government is trying to make us believe that they can develop this system, that it's safe and will not be open to fraud," said NDP critic Gilles Bisson. "The federal government has already decided not to go this route because of the privacy concerns."

Several provinces have been pushing for enhanced driver's licences to allow Canadians to cross by land or sea into the U.S. as an alternative to passports, which are more costly and more difficult to obtain.

Transportation Minister Jim Bradley said it is even more important for neighbouring U.S. states to adopt similar bills so that Americans can keep coming to Canada and return home with relative ease.

"One of the great advantages of this bill is that it encourages our American friends right across the border to do the same thing," Bradley said.

"Americans are less inclined than Canadians to get a passport."

The Ontario government will also offer the high-tech photo ID card for the estimated four million residents who don't have a valid driver's licence.

Bradley said the government has listened to critics who warned the project could become a nightmare that could trample on civil liberties and privacy rights, and will ensure border guards are given only limited information to go with the ID cards.

"It's only for people at the border, and it's not names, it's simply a number," Bradley said.

"We have been working with the privacy commissioner and will continue to get advice as we actually (develop) the regulations."

Bradley said the new enhanced licences would help reduce congestion at busy border points, something the Opposition said is critical given Ontario's faltering economy and the impact more slowdowns at the border would have on tourism.

"I think it was important that we offer people an alternative to a passport, particularly given the economic circumstances," said Progressive Conservatives critic Frank Klees.

"The fact was that we were experiencing some significant backlogs at the border crossings, and it looked like the requirement for a passport was going to create some (more) problems for us."

British Columbia was the first province to try out enhanced licences through a pilot project involving Washington state and the federal government, something Bradley said Ontario could definitely learn from.

Alberta, Quebec, Manitoba and several U.S. states, including New York, have also shown interest in developing the high-tech licences, which are embedded with a radio frequency identification chip that can be scanned at border crossings.

Next June, all travellers crossing into the U.S. by land or sea -- including American citizens -- will need a passport or an acceptable alternative.