We Beg to Differ

by Fred Nix

New technologies such as weigh-in motion detectors and transponders have the potential to make border crossing a much less time-consuming and paper-intensive experience for Canadian carriers. But as the recent failure of the joint Canada-U.S. project to automate the Coutts/ Sweetgrass border facility points out, it will take more than the right techno-gadgets to create a seamless international border for commercial trucks.

Coutts/Sweetgrass, connecting Interstate 15 and Alberta’s Highway 4, is the 13th busiest truck crossing between the two countries. In 1998 just over 200,000 trucks used this route. But although only 13th in rank, it is one of the fastest growing crossings with an average annual growth rate of 7.3 per cent for more than a decade. And it’s the only border crossing where the two countries share an inspection facility. Five years ago the Coutts/Sweetgrass Automated Border Crossing Project was begun with plans to automate weight compliance and safety inspections. Technologies such as weigh-in-motion scales installed in the highway and transponders on trucks that could be read by machines in the inspection station were to be used. Later phases of the project called for the automation of Customs inspections of cargo and Immigration inspection of drivers. But the project never made it past the design stage before “fundamental differences in philosophy” between Alberta and Montana resulted in the plug being pulled on its funding.

Dave Galt, administrator of the Motor Carrier Services Division of Montana’s Department of Transportation, Randy Carroll of Texas A&M University and Jodi Carson of Montana State University gave their assessment of the situation in a presentation before the Transportation Research Board annual meeting, recently held in Washington, D.C. Although the stakeholders have known for a year about the program’s demise, this was the first time the decision was announced before such a public and international forum.

Essentially, Alberta and Montana could not agree on how to select carriers eligible for vehicle inspection bypass privileges. Montana, Galt explains, wanted to use a carrier’s SafeStat score to select bypass carriers. Alberta wanted to use its Partners-In-Compliance (PIC) program.

“We had only done the WIM/AVI design…We did not get to the construction. I would not approve the expenditure of funds until we had the policy worked out. As Alberta got going with PIC and Montana got going with (SafeStat) it was readily apparent that a different philosophy was going to be a problem,” Galt says. “…The inability to reach agreement on bypass criteria between Montana and Alberta resulted in the discontinuance of the project as a whole.”

The SafeStat score was developed by the Office of Motor Carriers — as of January 1, 2000 re-named the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) — the agency within the U.S. Department of Transportation that regulates motor carrier safety. The SafeStat score provides enforcement officials with a relative ranking of all motor carriers in terms of how likely they are to be causing safety problems on the highway. Enforcement officers use the score to decide which carriers should be targeted for more inspections or audits of management procedures. A good SafeStat score indicates a motor carrier with good safety management practices and a carrier involved in relatively few accidents, violations and out-of-service events during an inspection. Logically, according to Montana officials, this is the easiest criteria to use in deciding which carriers can bypass an inspection facility.

Canadian carriers operating into the U.S. have SafeStat scores — or at least many of them do. (The FMCSA can’t give scores to small carriers where there has not been enough information collected to establish a score.) But Alberta wanted to use its much more rigorous PIC program to decide which carriers were eligible to bypass. PIC is like a premier carrier designation in the safety rating process. Alberta has invested a lot in this program and, to make it attractive for carriers to go through the procedures to join, the province has to reward the ones that do achieve a PIC designation. Bypassing inspection facilities is one of the few rewards Alberta has to offer.

Galt concedes that PIC is a good program. But, he explains, there are relatively few carriers with a PIC designation and they account for very few trucks passing through Coutts/Sweetgrass. Therefore, he argues, a lot of time and effort would have been spent building the necessary facilities and procedures at Coutts/Sweetgrass to bypass only a few trucks. One of the goals of the program was to improve the operational efficiency of border crossings, Galt continues, and that could not be met with so few trucks. But, he stresses, he is open to any future suggestions from Alberta on how to improve the border-crossing procedures. Roger Clarke, executive director of transportation safety and carrier services for Alberta, could not be reached for comment.

It is not clear what the failure of the Coutts/Sweetgrass project means for other border crossings. Rumors persist that other pilot projects face innumerable institutional problems. This is critical in light of the doubling of truck traffic across the border between 1984 and 1998.

With trade volumes between Canada and the United States growing at a sizzling rate of 12 to 13 per cent a year, something has to be done about border procedures argues James Phillips of the Canadian/American Border Trade Alliance (Can/Am BTA). Phillips was speaking at the same meeting as Galt, Carroll and Carson in Washington. The Can/Am BTA is a lobby group trying to make both governments aware of the importance of trade and the importance of making border procedures more efficient. As Phillips notes, the Canadian/American border accounts for 30 per cent of total American trade but U.S. Customs still only assigns 13 per cent of its staff to this border. Phillips argues that the two countries have to agree on procedures that can identify “low risk” trucking companies and then allow these carriers to move vehicles, drivers and cargoes back and forth across the border seamlessly. Periodic audits would ensure compliance with all the regulations, he suggests.

Even if institutional issues between the two countries could be ironed out, however, concerns over security could blindside the flow of commercial traffic across the border. Customs officers were on alert over Christmas and New Year’s following the arrests of several people thought to have been planning terrorist acts during millennium celebrations. Several arrests in mid-December involved people — including a Canadian woman — thought to have links to militant Islamic sects in Algeria. And they were entering our southern neighbor through Canada. While trucks weren’t specifically targeted in the blitz, the focus did lead to extended waits at specific crossings.

Security at the border has now returned to normal but for David Bradley, chief executive officer of the Canadian Trucking Alliance, there’s a long-term concern that fears about a terrorist threat could see a return of plans for Section 110 of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigration Responsibility Act. The bill, which slipped into legislative limbo when U.S. Customs voiced concerns about the logistical nightmare it could create, would require the tracking of every entry and exit of a visitor to the U.S.

“It’s sort of in a state of purgatory,” Bradley says of the legislation. “In the (hands of the) wrong administration, who knows?”

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