The time is right to rethink border processes

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These are strange days along the 49th parallel. Non-essential travel has been restricted since March 21 in a bid to limit exposure to Covid-19. Four reviews later, the restrictions are now extending into August, as public health officials monitor U.S. struggles to flatten the proverbial curve.

We’ll likely see some form of restricted border activity for months to come, as jurisdictions look to establish a balance between public health and economic interests.

The Canada-U.S. border still remains open for the essential travel of trade, however, and for good reason. The ongoing flow of trucks is essential to our intertwined societies, moving raw materials and finished products alike. The automotive sector probably offers the best example of how closely connected we have become. A typical car built in North America is trucked across the border seven times before it’s ultimately sold to a consumer.

Canada-U.S. border
(Photo: istock)

We can thank the ongoing commitments to free trade for that. About 33,000 trucks cross the U.S. borders with Canada or Mexico on a typical day, representing 70% of the total trade between these three amigos. The value of surface transportation to cross the borders has essentially tripled since the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was introduced in 1994.

Such activity certainly slowed during the early months of Covid-19 lockdowns, but truck volumes are rebuilding. And the stage has even been set for more growth to come.

In this pandemic-stricken time, many manufacturers are taking a closer look at their global supply chains, and considering whether some activities are better suited for North America. The newly minted Canada-U.S.-Mexico Agreement (CUSMA) – a trade deal known by three names depending on what country is telling the story – introduced higher domestic content requirements of its own.

Each opportunity could lead to growth in trucking activity.

The promise of renewed North American manufacturing activity, coupled with a new trade deal, also offers the perfect backdrop to tackle the outdated processes and procedures that continue to create barriers for border-crossing trucks.

Dan Einwechter, CEO of Challenger Motor Freight, highlighted several of them during a webinar late last week. “Arcane” cabotage rules continue to restrict the movement of empty trailers, even though a freer movement would improve operating efficiencies, he noted. Canadian trucks also continue to face limits on in-transit moves that would involve taking shortcuts through international territory. Changes in each set of rules would help to reduce emissions as well.

Derek Leathers, COO of Werner Enterprises, referred to loads stopped three times for inspections by different agencies. There are certainly things that could be done to remove wasted time from different shipments, he said.

Hastily adopted pandemic protocols have shown businesses and government agencies alike that traditional paper-heavy processes can make a quick shift to electronic transactions. Maybe quicker than anyone believed to be possible.

Meanwhile, CUSMA has established a framework to support further changes at the border, committing to the smoother release of trucks and establishing a committee devoted to refining the transportation system as a whole.

As we commit to rebuilding the North American economy, undeniably stricken by Covid-19, it only makes sense to make some of the renovations that will lead to a structure that is stronger than ever before.


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John G. Smith is Newcom Media's vice-president - editorial, and the editorial director of its trucking publications -- including Today's Trucking,, and Transport Routier. The award-winning journalist has covered the trucking industry since 1995.

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  • We have to become a North American union like the European Union. Open borders, common currency, and anyone can work anywhere s/he wants, while keeping the citizenship of one’s own country. If the Europeans can do so, after all the wars they fought with each other, why not we in North America, where the popular culture is already very similar.