By Gianni Ubriaco
Each year, trucks cross the Canada-U.S. border over 13 million times; that is approximately one truck every 2.5 seconds, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. All of those border crossings adds up to long lineups and time delays, not only for millions of American truck drivers, but also for the 400,000 truck drivers in Canada.
That is why Prime Minister Jean Chretien and President George W. Bush met on Sept. 9 at the Ambassador Bridge, which links Windsor and Detroit. On that day, the two countries announced the signing of a formal agreement committing the world's two largest trading partners to the Free and Secured Trade Program (FAST).
The program is aimed at providing a faster and simpler clearance process for low-risk shipments, or shipments that are imported by pre-authorized importers and carried by pre-authorized drivers and carriers.
However, reaction to the program from various members of the trucking industry has been mixed. Following the announcement, members of the Canadian Trucking Alliance (CTA), a federation of provincial trucking associations representing approximately 4,000 carriers, owner-operators and industry suppliers, were quick to respond to the new program.
"For our industry, this is a significant step forward in efforts by the two governments to introduce bilateral programs to expedite the flow of commercial traffic across the Canadian-U.S. Border," said the CEO of the alliance, David Bradley, in a release. "But, based on what has been announced so far, there are two major issues that cause us concern: the associated costs of truck driver registration/security checks and the need for border infrastructure improvements so that pre-cleared trucks can move quickly through dedicated lanes."
As far as the associated costs of truck driver registration/security checks, he reiterates that while he does not question the rationale behind voluntary driver background checks for those waiting to obtain expedited clearance at the border, he does notice a huge distinction between the Commercial Driver Registration Program (CDRP) and the proposed bilateral FAST card. The distinction being that a processing fee would be charged, which government officials have suggested will be $50 (US) or $80 (Cdn.).
In addition, drivers would have to renew their cards every two years.
Specifically, he and the CTA are proposing that the two-year validity period of FAST cards be extended to five years.
As for the CTA's concern over border infrastructure, Bradley says improvements must be made so that pre-cleared trucks can move quickly through dedicated lanes.
Similarly, the vice-president of public affairs and communications for the CTA, Elly Meister, has reservations about the program, but ultimately supports the program and feels it will help.
"We are supportive of the government's actions, but there are still concerns there," Meister says. "The FAST program is a step in the right direction, but there's still a need for border infrastructures implementation so that pre-
cleared trucks can move quickly though dedicated lanes."
In the wake of Sept.11, Meister says the delays for trucks crossing the border have increased, but she also points out that delays have always existed at the border.
"We have had border congestion for a number of years," she says. "There are certainly still delays for trucks crossing the border, but that problem was there even before Sept. 11. After Sept. 11 it did increase, but the time of delays fluctuates."
Current truck delays can range from 20 minutes to two hours, but she says she is hopeful the FAST program will reduce the amount of time truck drivers have to wait for clearance.
Both Canada and the U.S. have already established procedures for accepting FAST applications from importers. In fact, since Sept. 9, Canada and the U.S. have been jointly registering carriers for the FAST program.
Approximately 30,000 Canadian and American drivers have already applied to the CDRP so far.
Also, beginning in December, Canada and the U.S. will jointly offer expedited customs clearance processes to pre-authorized drivers, carriers, and importers at the following major border crossings: Detroit, Mich./Windsor, Ont.; Buffalo, N.Y./Fort Erie, Ont.; Lewiston, N.Y./Queenston, Ont.; Port Huron, Mich./Sarnia, Ont.; Champlain, N.Y. /Lacolle, Que.; and Blaine, W./Douglas, B.C.
Although all of this work is being done to reduce cross border delays for trucks, members of some northern trucking companies say they have not had too many problems crossing the border.
"I don't think it's much of a problem," says Rod Storey, of Taylor International Trucking in Fort Frances. "I think everything has been running pretty good from what I've noticed."
Storey's company is located near the U.S. border in northwestern Ontario. The company specializes in delivering paper loads and freight to Vermont, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. They usually use the International Falls border crossing.
"The only long lineups are at the Detroit-Windsor border, and I tell my people to go another route," Storey adds. "But, that border crossing has always been bad with 12 or 15 gates - overall, I believe it's gotten a lot better from what it used to be, but there's a little bit more that could be done."
Taylor International Trucking has been involved in highway transport and cross-border trucking for approximately four years now. They currently transport approximately four or five loads a day, and although Storey personally has not had a problem crossing the border, he says improvements should still be made to the bridges.
"I personally think the bridges are too old, too small to handle the flow and a new system should be put in place," he adds. "The government is trying their best, but the technology will have to come into effect and improve it all."
In particular, he suggests that the setup coming into the Canada Customs building could be improved.
"It's an awkward kind of setup," Storey says. "A little bit should be done to improve it."
The owner and manager of a trucking company in Sudbury also agrees cross-border delays for trucks have not been too long.
"I haven't had too many problems," says Jason Sanders of Aaron Transportation in Sudbury.
His company specializes in flat-deck long loads and transport goods to New York and Michigan.
"We just make sure to travel at night when there are less people crossing," Sanders says. "During the daytime, there are lineups for miles, but they've been there for a long time and that's just because of the volume and the brokers trying to clear up the paperwork."