Border to run smoother, predicts Customs czar’s right hand

TORONTO — Within the next 15 years, many of your trucks should be able to zip through Canada-U.S. border crossings without stopping.

That’s the prediction of one of America’s most influential customs officials, Thomas Winkowski, who bears the weighty title "Assistant Commissioner, Office of Field Operations, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP).

Essentially, he’s second in command when it comes to customs and he was addressing a Customs-and-Trade-Compliance conference in Toronto when he made the prediction, in response to a question from the floor.

"In the next 10 to 15 years, the border’s going to be completely different," he said. "It isn’t going to be a border where everything has to stop. It’s all going to be electronic."

Winkowski said that new customs-clearance protocols, when they’re completely in place, will mean that any carrier crossing the border will have to be "a trusted partner" of CBP, as will the shippers and manufacturers and drivers. All data about all parties will be available online, so there will be no need for drivers to stop and identify themselves or explain their loads.

Of course in order to reach that goal, he said, the program must have buy-in from all the government agencies involved in all three countries, U.S., Canada, and Mexico.

Mostly, though, Winkowski talked about why his new boss is the right man for that tricky job.

Barack Obama’s most recent appointment is Alan Bersin, named the new CBP top dog on March 30. For the past year, Bersin was Homeland Security boss’s Janet Napolitano’s lead hand on border affairs.

But before that, between 2005 and 2009 he was California’s Education Secretary. Prior, he was Superintendent of Public Education in San Diego.

(We suppose running the world’s single-richest trading frontier is probably a lot like looking after school kids. In both jobs, you have to deal with lineups, drug smugglers, and ‘dog-ate-my-documents’ excuses.)

Bersin is looking for efficiencies in the $11-billion border system, Winkowski said, and he’ll start with "low-hanging fruit" such as wait-time management at border crossings.

"We all recognize that in the just-in-time-inventory world that we live in, every minute counts. This is very, very important for the trade community as well as the general public."

"Commissioner Bersin is laser-beam focused on trade," Winkowski said.

Winkowski, who has been with CBP for 35 years, said the era of increased expenditure is over. Since 2003, his budget ballooned from $5 to $11 billion, but, he said, "2011 is going to be different."

A full 37 percent of his staff is tied to user fees, so when border traffic sinks, as it has over the past year, so does his budget. Last year, he saw an eight-percent cut in user fees and, he said, "we lose 95 jobs for every one percent decrease. Do the math."

The loss of manpower, he says, provides the impetus for increased automation and the drive towards the non-stop border crossings. 

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