Brutal border backup

by Ron Stang

WINDSOR, Ont. – A nationwide US Customs computer glitch saw truck traffic backed up here more than 20 kms in the kind of delay not seen since the weeks after 9/11.

The day in question was Oct. 22 when computers processing both commercial and vehicular traffic malfunctioned and resulted in multi-hour delays, according to truckers with whom Truck News spoke.

US Customs and Border Protection officials did not provide an actual count for the hours the system was down. Spokesman Kris Grogan from a US Customs regional office said he didn’t know “the exact length, because I think some places came up before others” and Detroit Customs chief Ken Hammond said “I believe it was just a couple of hours.”

But Brad Vermette, manager of the Windsor terminal for Doug Coleman Trucking, said “You were looking at four to five hours getting over the border.”

Trucks were backed up through most of the afternoon along Huron Church Rd. and Windsor police said the line wasn’t cleared until 9:45 p.m. Brian Masse, the NDP MP for Windsor West, who is official opposition critic for border issues, called the glitch “disturbing,” particularly since Customs on both sides of the border has implemented improved technology including FAST and C-TPAT.

As well, he said, there is the Beyond the Border Agreement, designed to expedite shipments of an increasing number of commodities. “So if we’re going to head down that road more, it appears we haven’t really thought what are we going to do if we have problems,” he said.

Masse said that generally he’s satisfied with processing on the US side but with an uptick in the economy there are more trucks crossing the bridge and he has received more complaints of delays.

Windsor Mayor Eddie Francis recently cited the figure of 12,000 trucks crossing a day, which is considerably higher than the pre-recession level of 10,000.

“The truck traffic, I’ve really noticed a big difference over the last half a year, so we need to start preparing for that,” Masse said.

The day was a nightmare for Vermette’s drivers. He sends about 40 of his 50 drivers stateside every day carrying just-in-time delivery of auto parts.

“I don’t know what happened,” he said. ”There were all different types of stories,” such as Customs not getting paid because of the US government shutdown.

Truckers say there had been a slowdown generally in October with an apparently increased x-ray surveillance of trailers. Vermette said his drivers were losing two hours a day, “so 10 hours for the week.” It’s also a logbook issue. “I’m concerned about my drivers getting the freight on time,” he said. Vermette said it can becomes a general safety issue “with hours of service.” But his firm is exactly monitored by satellite.

Tracy Cassivi, who drives bulk loads for Laidlaw Carriers out of Woodstock, Ont. had just dropped off scrap metal at Zalev Bros. in Windsor and had come off E.C. Row Expressway.

He took one look at the Huron Church line-up “and made my decision rather quickly” to pull in for the night. Otherwise, he said, he would have exceeded his legal hours.

He parks in an open lot near the bridge and hasn’t had problems doing so. “I pulled in there at 6.30, and then my 10 hours off, I go again at 4:30 in the morning,” he said. But Cassivi is “lucky” because his customers operate 24 hours. “And it’s not like life and death if the load doesn’t get there, it’s very rare I’ve got a delivery appointment.”

Other drivers aren’t as fortunate.

“A lot of guys don’t have that ability because they’ve got just-in-time deliveries.” Cassivi knows that drivers are between a rock and a hard place because of border delays. “I do know there’s a lot of guys sitting in those line-ups, and you know this, that when they get to the other side, they have not shown themselves on duty for that two or three hours or whatever it was,” he said. “And that’s their business, because you have to do what we do to bring money home for our wives our families and our responsibilities.”

Cassivi said he thinks back-ups have also been caused by maintenance work on the bridge, and traffic was “funneling into one lane” on the two-lane Detroit-bound side. An official with the bridge company did not respond to requests for comment.

Jennifer Fox, spokeswoman for the Ontario Trucking Association, said none of the association’s members reported a problem, probably because of the legacy of border back-ups. “It’s just become a part of the risk of doing business across the border and they understand and appreciate that those one-offs will happen,” she said.

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