COUTTS, Alta. - The Coutts-Sweetgrass border crossing is one of Canada's oldest shared ports of entry with the U.S., but little has been done to keep this well-travelled border crossing up with the ti...
COUTTS, Alta. – The Coutts-Sweetgrass border crossing is one of Canada’s oldest shared ports of entry with the U.S., but little has been done to keep this well-travelled border crossing up with the times.
More than 420 trucks pass through the border crossing each day, making it the busiest border between B.C.’s Pacific Highway border and Manitoba’s Emerson crossing.
Finally, this historic border crossing is being revamped to handle the increasing traffic – a move that should delight truckers who frequently have to cross into the U.S. at Alberta’s only 24-hour crossing.
The federal government has committed $15.5 million to the upgrades, which is being matched by the U.S. The U.S. side will be virtually a mirror image of the Canadian crossing when all is said and done.
“This is going to make it a lot more organized,” says Scott MacCumber, chief of customs operations for Canada Customs and Revenue Agency in Coutts.
Currently, all traffic is funneled into two lanes, only one of which is able to handle commercial trucks, but the new plans will provide truckers with four lanes to choose from.
“It will be clear when they come off the Interstate that commercial traffic goes to one side and non-commercial traffic goes to the other side and there’ll be no criss-crossing like we have now,” explains MacCumber. “Once we get this up and running so that everybody’s separated, at least half of the trucks will report to the booths in about a minute and be up the road.”
That compares to the half-hour to one-hour waits, which have become the norm in recent years.
One of the problems causing backups at the current Coutts border is that truckers frequently have to leave their trucks when reporting to customs. Because there is only one truck lane, it causes major backups, which won’t be necessary with the new plans, says MacCumber.
“There’ll be no need for anyone to get out of their truck prior to primary inspection,” says MacCumber.
Truckers will also be able to stay in the comfort of their rig when crossing at night.
“We’ve designed it so that after hours, when it’s lower volume traffic, commercial trucks can come to where it’s attached to the building and then they don’t have to stop and get out,” says MacCumber.
Another advantage of the changes is that truck parking will expand from 12 parking spaces to at least 33. And rather than having to tie up the only lane of traffic while backing up into each space, truckers will usually be able to pull through.
Another improvement will be the construction of an actual warehouse that can be used to offload suspicious freight. It will replace the archaic tent that’s now used, and will prevent drivers from having to make the 100-km trek to Lethbridge to offload for an inspection.
“This will have a fully-functional warehouse so all exams that we handle will be handled here, and that will speed up the process,” says MacCumber.
Although plans to reconstruct the Coutts border crossing were well under way before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, now that the wheels are in motion Canada Customs will be able to accommodate some new security tools such as its new cargo X-ray scanner.
It’s been sitting idle for a couple of months, since there’s not yet a loading dock in place, but when the new facility is built customs agents will be able to roll it into trailers to scan cargo more thoroughly and efficiently than by hand.
“As we’re unloading a truck, rather than going through every box by hand we can put the packages through here,” says MacCumber.
The rolling unit can be slid into the trailer so the freight doesn’t even have to be removed from the trailer during an inspection.
While the new facilities will provide the more efficient movement of trucks and better working conditions for customs officers, there are no plans to add more staff to help handle the increase in truck traffic.
“This is not a staffing issue,” points out MacCumber. However he adds the existing staff will be located in a common area making it easier for them to help out where needed.
“We’ll have all our commercial staff, traffic staff and our enforcement staff in one area so if there’s an imbalance of commercial versus non-commercial traffic we can share resources,” says MacCumber.