A new test in the Pacific Northwest by U.S. Customs authorities to see how effectively and efficiently southbound trucks from Canada can be pre-cleared before crossing the border is limited to participants in the voluntary FAST security program, but will be open to all truck drivers when the pilot program switches after six months to a major crossing near Niagara Falls, the official in charge of the initiative said.
On Monday, Customs and Border Protection officers began pre-inspecting FAST trucks at the Surrey, British Columbia, border station to determine whether the agency can perform all primary inspection functions, including radiation detection checks, normally done on the U.S. side. Secondary inspections will continue to be carried out at the U.S. facility in Blaine, Wash.
Blaine and Surrey are connected by the Pacific Highway.
Free and Secure Trade (FAST) is a program that allows expedited processing for approved commercial carriers that have completed background checks. Drivers and carriers must be pre-vetted and the cargo they carry must be from importers that are certified members of the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism. At dedicated FAST lanes, three bar-coded documents with information about the driver, carrier and importer are scanned while customs declarations and verification are completed later, away from the border.
Blaine was chosen as the initial site for pre-clearance because of its confined footprint, which will enable CBP to closely control operations with a low-risk population of truckers and test its technology, response protocols, and throughput efficiency, Michele James, the CBP field director in Seattle, said Tuesday in a phone interview. The Blaine port of entry handles 360,000 trucks per year, about 20 percent of which are FAST certified. That means about 6,000 trucks per month, on the high end, could get pre-checked on the Canadian side of the border, she said.
"The overall goal is to determine if this approach can reduce wait times and increase throughput while making sure cargo is still secure," she said.
The second phase of the pilot will test CBP's truck-processing capability in a bridge environment.
The Peace Bridge connecting Fort Erie, Ontario, and Buffalo, N.Y., is one of the busiest commercial vehicle crossings between the United States and Canada, with about 650,000 trucks entering the United States and almost as many heading north in 2012, according to bridge authority figures.
CBP is considering placing two pre-inspection booths on the Fort Erie side of the Peace Bridge, James said. Any trucks will be able to participate in the pilot, not just trucks carrying cargo from the Port of Montreal, as CBP officials suggested late last year.
Cars and trucks share the Peace Bridge-approach to the U.S. Customs plaza, "so if we could do some of the up-front work for trucks on the Canadian side, release them and allow them to flow through the U.S. side through a potentially modified number of booths it may allow for more efficiency overall in that plaza," James said.
Close collaboration between U.S. and Canadian authorities, including the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, was necessary to get the pre-inspection program off the ground. Among the issues that needed to be agreed on, she said, are how both sides will respond if a potential security threat or a radiation source is detected.
The Department of Homeland Security, after many years of negotiation, was able to obtain waivers for CBP officers to carry firearms on Canadian soil.
CBP, CBSA and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police ran full exercises to practice together how they would respond to various incidents.
"We're functioning in a different country. We've placed our officers there and they're armed. So we want to make sure we're abiding by their procedures and standards," including how incidents are reported, James said of the extensive preparations that went into the program.
Under the pilot program, trucks enter a designated area and pass between two mobile radiation portal monitors before reaching the customs booth, where a U.S. inspector identifies the driver, truck and cargo, and processes the electronic manifest and any other documentation on a computer.
The truck proceeds to the regular inspection lane on the U.S. side where another officer calls up the transaction in the Automated Commercial Environment, or ACE system. If there are no issues, the driver receives a green light to slowly continue through the facility. Suspicious vehicles are diverted to another part of the compound for a secondary inspection using non-intrusive, X-ray inspection equipment, James explained.
A key part of the experiment, she said, is determining how quickly CBP's IT system can make the information available to the FAST booth at the U.S. port of entry and release the cargo so that the driver doesn't have to stop after crossing the border.
If the trial proves successful at reducing congestion while maintaining security the program could be rolled out to other crossings on the northern border, but Blaine is unlikely to continue with pre-clearance in the immediate future because traffic is flowing smoothly thanks to recent upgrades to the Customs plaza and preferential treatment for FAST participants, James said.
"You have to look at every footprint. In some locations, wait times are very low, so there would not be a need to do it," she said.
Asked why the United States and Canada didn't establish pre-clearance centers in the interior of Canada, as has been contemplated in the past, James said doing so requires a secure corridor to ensure the cargo is not tampered with between the last inspection and arrival at the border.
"Maintaining the integrity of the cargo allows us to have that comfort level that it still is as secure a load as when we released it," she said. Pre-clearing travelers at Canadian airports is different, she explained, because once they clear Customs passengers go to a secure area and are put directly on the plane, where they stay until arriving in the United States.
Truck pre-clearance is one of many measures being taken by CBP and the Canadian Border Services Agency to implement the Beyond the Border plan trumpeted by President Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper two years ago. The governments envision simplifying security and regulatory requirements, and improving infrastructure at the border to enhance trade and economic growth in North America.
Last fall, CBP and CBSA began a project to test their ability to have Canada Customs inspect ocean containers arriving at the Port of Prince Rupert that are shipped to the United States on rail cars so that the trains can clear the border in a quarter the normal time. - Eric Kulisch
(Note: Yesterday's newswire with an initial story about the border pilot program incorrectly reported on where X-ray inspections will be inspected. Suspicious cargo will be scanned at the CBP facility in Blaine.)