'Waiving' the wand

| 3/8/2006

You’re waiting at the border to cross into the U.S. You’ve got your manifest documents and your toll money ready as you near the wicket. Out comes a customs officer with the magic wand to scan your shipment. A minute or two goes by and then you’re cleared to proceed.

Wouldn’t things be much easier if you didn’t have to stop for the wand or to wait for manual processing of your manifest? It’s not such a crazy concept. It’s already a reality at about half of the crossing points into the U.S. from Mexico and Canada.

It’s the ACE program: Automated Commercial Environment, and it’s going to be mandatory for all incoming trucks by late summer, according to a U.S. customs official. The launch date was going to be in February, but it’s been delayed to accommodate more companies and people in the trucking industry.

Some trucking companies are already using it voluntarily. And it means simply, drive up, swipe and carry on.

Louis Samenfink, executive director of the Cargo Systems Program Office of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, told Land Line that ACE uses transponder technology similar to the automatic lanes at tollbooths. Data about freight is automatically logged into computers. The technology costs about $100 plus a fee, automatically debited to your account.

“We want people to interact with us more easily, especially in the land of truckers, where you have a lot of independent owner-operators out there and so forth who perhaps aren’t going to be building their own software to send us data,” Samenfink told said. “The ability to sign on to cbp.gov and type a manifest in and give it to us is a tool we thought they would need.”

Samenfink said the goal is to reduce border wait times for truckers at all 91 North American crossings, and allow customs officials to step out of clerical mode and concentrate on security and anti-terrorism.

Right now, at non-ACE crossings, customs officials handle paperwork and must scan freight manually with a wand, which takes about a minute per truck.

Samenfink said that time could be cut at least in half, which will lead to fewer trucks stacking up at border crossings. He used the example of the Ambassador Bridge in Detroit, where about 7,000 trucks cross each day.

Shaving 30 to 45 seconds off of each truck would save time and fuel, especially when multiplied out over time, he said.

The program is different and independent of FAST – Free And Secure Trade – according to customs officials. FAST is a pre-clearance process offered to trucking companies to expedite border crossings by sharing admissibility information with appropriate agencies on the supply chain, drivers and carriers. ACE tracks cargo and is in place to specifically expedite trade.

Trucking companies voluntarily using ACE increased from 41 to 126 in February, but there is still a long way to go to get every truck on board.

“Every carrier arriving in the United States toward the end of this year and into next year will have to participate,” Samenfink said. “We’re not going to mandate it nationwide all at once.”

Instead, ACE is going to be phased in at all official crossing points at borders with Mexico and Canada.

“We’re up right now at 43 ports, and there’s a total of 91 we need to get to,” Samenfink said.

Customs officials will send letters and implement a grace period for companies to get involved in ACE as part of the phasing-in process, he said.

– David Tanner, staff writer