BRIDGING OF MINDS: Carriers have been concerned about delays in crossing to the U.S. but bridge officials say new measures are improving the situation.
NIAGARA FALLS, Ont. – Recent changes to carrier identity processing under the U.S. Trade Act, implemented Nov. 15, are causing less chaos than expected at the border.
At the Peace Bridge, carriers were unable to use the bridge’s identity code (also known as the SCAC code – the Standard Carrier Alpha Code) as of Nov. 15. Carriers who didn’t have their own codes regularly used the bridge’s universal code to cross up to then.
But when the U.S. Trade Act kicked in, the bridge’s universal SCAC code was wiped out and carriers were forced to apply for their own codes.
The potential queuing disaster if carriers arriving at U.S. Customs en masse without SCAC codes was something bridge and Customs officials were hoping to avoid by handing out leaflets to truckers informing them of the change for months in advance.
It seems their efforts have paid off.
“Things seem to be running well here today,” said Ron Rienas, general manager of corporate services for the Peace Bridge, in November.
Nov. 15 saw the bridge’s Commercial Vehicle Processing Centre relocated down the highway to the Fort Erie Truck and Travel Centre. The centre was also given a new name, ostensibly in honour of the prenotification regulations that are now well underway for carriers crossing into the U.S. It is now called the PPC (Preprocessing Centre) and basically exists as a centre to either produce bar codes for truckers who already have their SCAC codes and invoice numbers at the ready, or to help truckers caught without SCAC codes to get them. Staff on site will either call the trucker’s carrier to find out what the numbers are or give the trucker a sheet of paper telling him or her exactly how their carrier can go about applying for a code. Obtaining a code usually takes about two weeks and involves faxing in an application and payment to the U.S. National Motor Freight Traffic Association. (Call 703-838-1831 or visit www.nmfta.org and apply online).
On the whole, Canadian carriers seem to have been well prepared for the change, said Rienas, adding now that the processing centre has moved there’s more room for truck queuing in the lot near the foot of the bridge which the centre formerly occupied.
“We can fit 100 trucks in that yard,” Rienas said. “That way trucks won’t be queued up down the highway.”
Rienas was among four panelists at the session on bridges held at the Ontario Trucking Association’s annual convention, held in November.
The other panelists were Skip McMahon, director of special projects for the Ambassador Bridge, Brent Gallagher, agency relations and security manager for the Niagara Falls Bridge Commission and Stan Korosec, vice-president of operations for the Blue Water Bridge Authority.
All gave updates on where their bridges stand in terms of the new prenotification and FAST card requirements under the U.S. Trade Act.
McMahon was pleased to announce queues have diminished considerably since U.S. Customs started staffing four more primary inspection booths on the U.S. side.
The booths, which were not staffed until this summer, were built by the bridge and completed in October 2003.
There was some speculation, when the booths were finally opened this July 23 (bringing the total number of fully staffed booths to 13) that truck queues were only diminished because the auto makers were shut down for three weeks.
But the speculation has proven unfounded, according to McMahon.
“The new booths are really making a difference,” he said. “If the booths are fully staffed we can process 400 trucks per hour.”
McMahon added the Ambassador Bridge’s truck preprocessing centres in Windsor and in London, Ont. are now open 24/7.
The FAST placard system, which raised the ire of carriers last year, has also gained acceptance, said McMahon. (Carriers were unhappy about having to pay an extra $5 for the placards allowing them to use a reserved lane on the approach to the bridge.) Now the FAST placard can also be used for a designated lane into Canada on the Detroit side, available as of Nov. 1, said McMahon.
Future plans include adding another three lanes on the bridge inbound to Windsor by next year, as well as six new primary inspection lanes and six sets of weigh scales on the Detroit side.
“We’re moving all the tolls now on to the Detroit side to make it easier coming up on to the bridge,” said McMahon. Scales on the Windsor side will be moved further down the highway to avoid creating line-ups along the bridge he added.
McMahon also announced the bridge’s plan to build another four primary processing booths on the U.S. side to twin itself – preferably by running another bridge alongside the span that already exists.
“But that will only happen when the governments do something about building the 401 up to the foot of the bridge,” he said.
Brent Gallagher, agency relations and security manager for the Niagara Falls Bridge Commission presented the latest on the Queenston-Lewiston Bridge and its ongoing expansion project.
“We’re finishing the Highway 405 expansion project, with the truck express lane, this week, and we’re starting to build a fifth lane on the bridge,” Gallagher told convention delegates.
Gallagher was vocal about the need for improvements to the bridge and surrounding infrastructure.
“In the past two years there have been three fatal accidents due to truck queues along the 405,” he said.
Things are looking up for the Blue Water Bridge as well, according to Stan Korosec, vice -president of operations.
“We’ve seen an increase of FAST traffic from three to 15 per cent over the past year,” said Korosec.
As for the bridge’s plans to expand its plaza on the Canadian side, they’re going ahead, Korosec said.
“We’re building a new dedicated truck ramp from Highway 402, which should be completed in two years, and the plaza should be entirely reconstructed in eight years,” he said.
The number of lanes leading up the bridge on the Canadian side is also going to be increased up to 12 lanes, with the middle ones open to going in either direction, Korosec said. The OPP has also agreed to close Marina Rd. to regular traffic when traffic is heavy, making it easier for trucks to get access to the bridge.
As for work on the U.S. side, three alternatives are being considered, he said. The alternative favoured by the bridge authority involved moving commercial processing booths further down the highway.
“The road would be secure,” he added.
“And there would be lots of room for future customs buildings. This alternative is ideal because it would move queuing off the bridge.”
But despite all the optimism on the part of bridge authorities regarding expansion plans, the issue of upcoming Customs regulations to be enforced under the U.S. Trade Act still proved worrisome.
Bridge authorities expressed concern about the enforcement of upcoming US-VISIT requirements for landed immigrants kicking in Dec. 31.
“I don’t think there’s going to be a problem with getting the drivers through U.S. Customs on the way in, because they’ll all have their I-94 waivers and most likely be allowed to use them until they run out,” said McMahon, adding U.S. Customs officials have indicated they’ll only require these drivers to get fingerprinted and photographed for the US-VISIT passes when their I-94 waivers expire – meaning they won’t all have to line up around the block to get their passes Dec. 31.
“But what I would worry about, under the current regulation as it’s written, is that US-VISIT holders will be required to stop and give information about themselves when they exit the U.S. This could create a problem.”
According to McMahon, U.S. Customs is looking at ways to allow drivers to file their exit information electronically.