Borderline Anxiety

Coming or going, terrorism alerts, new regulations and hours of service affect Canadian runs.

On a Friday in early October, things are moving smoothly on the Ambassador Bridge – Detroit’s main link with Windsor, Ontario. Hundreds of trucks are traveling across the four-lane, privately owned bridge, and most are skipping through customs on both ends and are briskly on their way to a destination in Canada or the United States.

This is the way things are supposed to work when the weather is good and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s color-coded threat-level is yellow (elevated). Of course, any number of things can turn Windsor’s main drag and Detroit’s freeways into parking lots for the 6,000 or so trucks that cross the bridge every day.

The possibility of a slowdown is close at hand. Canadian customs workers are considering a strike. Since the law prevents them from walking off the job, they are talking about processing traffic by the book, which would significantly slow transit times. Jim Gibson, manager of safety and personnel for the Ryan Transportation Group, worries that his drivers carting auto parts from New York across Ontario to Detroit will be snagged in massive traffic jams. Ryan’s office is 22 miles from the bridge, but a security shutdown or a slowdown in processing can affect traffic on the freeway nearby.

“If we have four- or five-hour backups, we may have to relay drivers to make sure they have enough hours,” Gibson says.

Meanwhile, bridge operators were worried about new federal regulations that were scheduled to go into effect Nov. 15, which will require truckers coming into the United States to submit their manifest electronically to U.S. Customs officials at least one hour before they get to the border. Truckers who fail to comply won’t be allowed into the United States and will be forced back into Canada until they can sort out the paperwork.

For drivers and carriers the new rule will likely come with a grace period before Customs officials begin sending truckers back across the border. But unlike the three-month trial period U.S. Department of Transportation officials gave truckers when the new hours-of-service rule came out, “Full enforcement of the rule will probably be a whole lot closer to six weeks,” says Thomas L. “Skip” McMahon, director of special projects for the Detroit International Bridge company.

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At the Canadian border, where billions of dollars in goods move north and south across bridges, through gates and in tunnels, truck traffic has accelerated since the advent of the North American Free Trade Agreement in the mid 1990s. Commercial traffic increased by 30 percent between 1995 and 2001, when more than 13 million trucks crossed the border, according to the U.S. DOT’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics. To put that into perspective, more than 1,500 trucks, which carry everything from auto parts to produce to hazardous materials, cross the border per hour.

For truckers who must cross the border to deliver loads, dealing with customs procedures, hours of service variances and traffic congestion has been a source of frustration for years. Since Sept. 11, 2001 the stress of going north or south has ratcheted upward even though average transit times haven’t increased dramatically, according to BTS. (The agency says truck traffic actually declined with the economic downturn following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.)

On good days, when the terrorism threat level is merely elevated, some delays are unavoidable – especially for truckers who arrive at the border unprepared. Most clip through a busy border in a few minutes.

When security is heightened, however, waits of three or more hours occur regularly even at less-traveled crossings. At busy ports like Detroit’s Ambassador Bridge, waits of five or more hours become routine.

Waiting game
That’s one of the reasons Canadian trucker David Sanborn of Vernon, British Columbia, avoids the Ambassador Bridge. “If they change the color code, we feel it in the border-crossing times,” Sanborn says. “Three and half hours right off the bat.”

Most of the time Sanborn is driving out west, hauling glass products from British Columbia to San Francisco. He crosses at smaller border crossings like Orville, Wash. “I don’t experience much of a slow down there. Sometimes, you can end up with a 10-minute wait on the north side.”

A study of border crossing transit times by the Michigan, New York and U.S. DOTs found major delays at most borders in the summer of 2002. In Detroit, the agencies estimated a typical truck crossing at the Ambassador Bridge took nearly 29 minutes due to security and custom clearing issues. Today, those transit times are much faster – though not as fast as they were before Sept. 11.

“It’s gotten a lot better than when they first reopened the border after 9/11,” says Jim Gibson. “At first there were major delays – eight, nine or 10 hours.”

Most shipments are cleared now in a matter of minutes, says Gary Calhoun, an official with U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Detroit. Transit times could speed up for many truckers as they join programs like FAST, or Free and Secure Trade, a credentialing program started by the U.S. government in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks to speed customs clearance for commercial goods. With FAST, drivers and carriers are prescreened by customs officials, and drivers carry a FAST identification card. Customs officials already know vital information about the background of the trucking company and the trucker when they get to the first inspection booth.

Other programs like PARS, or the pre-arrival review system, a Canadian program that gives customs officials advance warning about shipments headed north, also help screen cargo and speed up legitimate freight. Going south, a similar program called PAPS, or pre-arrival processing system, does the same thing. Under both programs, a carrier, shipper or driver affixes a unique bar code to each commercial invoice and truck manifest. The bar-coded invoice is then faxed to the appropriate U.S. or Canadian customs broker. The manifest or invoice is sent to the right customs official prior to the truck’s arrival at the border. Once at the border, a customs agent scans the barcode on the truck’s manifest and approves the truck or sends it on for further inspection.

Such programs coupled with new regulations that will require carriers and drivers to identify their freight an hour before they arrive at a port of entry, will speed processing because customs officials can target worrisome shipments. “We could move from clearing multiple shipments in three minutes to 15 seconds,” Calhoun says. “We’ll be able to do advanced targeting before a load ever reaches the border. And legitimate trade will go through smoothly.”

Carriers and drivers are sympathetic to the task that customs agents must perform. “Customs has an important job to do,” says Jim Gibson, manager of safety and personnel for the Ryan Transportation Group, a cluster of several Canadian- and U.S.-based carriers. “Everybody believes in that job. They’re here to stop drugs, human smuggling and terrorism.”

Programs, programs, programs
Some carriers aren’t happy with the volume of new procedures and programs that have been instituted since 2001. Since the Sept. 11 attacks more than three years ago, the two customs agencies have been busy introducing regulations, creating compliance programs and partnerships, and changing the method of inspections at crucial points of entry. On the U.S. side, CBP has invested in X-ray machines (some of which are portable) large enough to scan 18-wheelers, nuclear radiation detectors and hundreds of agents.

In addition to FAST, there’s the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism, which CPB established to work with importers, carriers, brokers and other industry sectors. The goal of the group was to emphasize a seamless security-conscious environment throughout the entire commercial process, from manufacture through transportation and importation to ultimate distribution.

Although C-TPAT has 7,000 members and is the largest public/private partnership in U.S. history, C-TPAT members still have to join and go through the FAST program to take advantage of its benefits. Many carriers consider that a duplication of effort, even though they are happy to have the dedicated lanes and faster processing times that come with a FAST membership.

Carriers and drivers aren’t happy with the cost either. A driver pays more than $50 to join FAST and get the ID card. For carriers who want to join, that cost is applied to hundreds and thousands of drivers. Until CBP announced its Nov. 15 regulation, many truckers and fleets were slow to join because they fear they will have to invest in another program, the Transportation Worker Identification Card, or TWIC, which is in a pilot phase at some airports and ports.

But the push for pre-notification for freight shipments entering the U.S. has forced many drivers and carriers to jump on board. The reason is simple: if they’re not a member of FAST, with certain loads they may get stuck at the border or even denied entry and turned around.

“Some shippers and carriers out there don’t believe it,” says McMahon with the Detroit International Bridge Company. “They think Customs won’t send their freight back to Canada. They think they’re not going to send my freight back. Well, that’s wrong. If you show up here with the wrong setup, you have a good chance of going back to Canada.”

After last month’s deadline, truckers who haul loads labeled BRASS, or Border Release Advanced Screening and Selectivity, must be a member of FAST. BRASS is an older program under which Customs identifies loads that are high-volume, highly compliant cargo (typically automotive parts or commodities). Companies shipping BRASS shipments have been pre-screened and assigned alphanumeric identification codes. Since approximately 50 percent of all loads crossing the U.S. border with Canada are BRASS loads, according to the Canadian Trucking Alliance, a large volume of loads may be denied entry, unless drivers get FAST ID cards.

Drivers and carriers began applying in droves after the new rule was announced in August. But the process has bogged down. The Canadian Trucking Alliance said in early October less than one-third of truckers who haul cross-border were registered with FAST. Another 11,000 were awaiting interviews, and a further 13,000 were elsewhere in the processing system, according to CTA.

CTA’s David Bradley expressed concern about not having enough drivers registered for FAST by the Nov. 15 implementation date to handle the volume of BRASS shipments across the border. “If CBP were to commence hard enforcement on that date, if trucks were turned around on the bridges and carriers fined, we could have chaos,” he says.

Canadian trucker David Sanborn’s FAST clearance is stuck in that system right now. So is American trucker Lance Wood’s. The owner-operator from Mascoutah, Ill., says he sent in his FAST application in September and hadn’t heard anything. He was frustrated because he had to pay up front for the card.

The biggest challenge for crossing the border is being unprepared and not having paperwork in order. Wood says most drivers figure out the ropes after a few trips. But even he has problems occasionally. “You really have to plan your trip out in advance,” he says. “You need to have all your paperwork ready and have blank copies of your manifest and customs documents because some shippers won’t have it.”

Wood spent a weekend at the Detroit customs detainment lot because he didn’t have all the paperwork he was supposed to have. He picked up a load from a facility that closed at 5 p.m. on a Friday. When he got to the border at 7 p.m., he didn’t have a declared value sheet, one of the forms U.S. Customs requires drivers to carry. “The shipper didn’t open until Monday morning, so that’s where I sat for the weekend.”

But Wood, who is leased to J.B. Hunt, also says delays at the border are overblown and aren’t as bad as many people think. “I went up three days after Sept. 11, and I didn’t run into any delays,” Wood says. “I think people make a bigger deal out of it than it is. If there’s not traffic, it only takes a couple of minutes getting into Canada and about the same for the U.S.”

Still, the delays and program changes illustrate the growing pains border officials and carriers have suffered. “Some in the carrier population have resisted taking part in these programs,” MacMahon says. “The little guy wasn’t getting anything out of joining the program.”

That may change if they face fines or delayed deliveries. For those carriers who take part in the programs, productivity should increase. The electronic pre-screening set to begin Nov. 15 should also clean up some congestion at border crossings as problem carriers and questionable loads are shunted to the side, allowing low-risk freight and compliant truckers to speed past. At the end of the day, that’s what both carriers and customs agents want, says McMahon.

“Customs doesn’t want to spend all day looking at a load of bumpers,” he says.

Making the Crossing
If you’ve never crossed the border into Canada, here are several things you need to know:

  • Carry required identification. A valid passport or a driver’s license, copy of your Social Security Card and birth certificate will do. Make sure you also have your DOT physical card and cards for any programs like FAST.
  • Turn on your interior cab lights and open all drapes and blinds for easy inspections.
  • Make sure you are carrying no contraband like long knives or pornographic material and some food products. Such items may be illegal. If you’re not sure, check before you roll up for inspection.
  • Make sure all your customs paperwork is completed and ready for presentation to officials at primary inspection before you get there.
  • Communicate with your broker before getting to the border crossing and verify that your paperwork has arrived.
  • Never argue with a customs official. They always have the final say.
  • Stay calm and contact your carrier if you run into problems.
  • If you have the paperwork to get into Canada, you can probably get back with it, depending on your load. But check before you cross the border.

Driving in Canadian Hours
Be careful when you cross the Canadian border – while you may have enough hours to keep driving on one side of the line, you may have to park it on the other side.

Like the U.S. Department of Transportation, Canadian transportation officials have been revamping the hours-of-service regulations that rule the roads up north. The process has been influenced somewhat by events in the United States.

Announced in February 2003, changes to the Canadian rules:

  • Increase the minimum daily off-duty period from eight hours to 10 hours
  • Require that no fewer than eight of the hours of off-duty time be taken consecutively, with the additional two hours to be taken in increments of no less than a half hour
  • Reduce the daily maximum driving time from 16 hours to 13 hours
  • Reduce the daily maximum on-duty time from 16 hours to 14 hours, of which no more than 13 hours can be on-duty driving time
  • Eliminate the option to reduce the off-duty time from eight hours to four hours
  • Permit, within defined parameters, the averaging of on-duty and off-duty time over a 48-hour period
  • Reduce the number of available work/rest cycles from three to two, a maximum 70-hour cycle over 7 days and a maximum 120-hour cycle over 14 days
  • For drivers who wish to switch or reset cycles, requiring a minimum of 36 consecutive hours off duty before “resetting the clock to zero” for the 70-hour cycle and a minimum of 72 consecutive hours off duty for the 120-hour cycle
  • Require a minimum 24-hour off-duty period at least once every 14 days for all drivers.

The proposal hasn’t been codified yet, although officials with the Canadian trucking industry expected Transport Canada to release the final rule and a timeline by Jan. 1. In September, transportation officials discussed rule changes, and the Canadian Trucking Alliance said after a meeting with those officials that revisions are likely. CTA wants the rule to extend the working window from 16 hours to 18 hours. The group is lobbying for other changes, too.

American and Canadian drivers say they just want rules that work the same way in both countries. Under the current setup, a driver using the U.S. system to reset his schedule after 34 consecutive hours off may be out of hours when he crosses the border because Canadian rules do not allow for such a reset. Likewise, drivers who may still have driving time left in Canada, may be out of hours when they cross the border heading south because Canada allows for more hours of driving than the United States.

“I just wish they’d make the rule so that it matches the American rules,” says Canadian trucker David Sanborn. He uses software programs to make sure he has the proper time left when he crosses the border, no matter which direction he’s headed. He runs into problems mainly due to the 34-hour reset in the United States when he’s headed home to Canada. “I’m running about 90 percent of my miles in the U.S.,” he says. “So I run out of hours if I cross the border home. I usually just have to sit until midnight until I get enough hours off so I can continue.”

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