New GAO study to shine light on border delays
by Nelson Balido
To take a tour of a port of entry connecting the U.S. and Canada or the U.S. and Mexico is to get a glimpse of the latest in cutting edge technology.
For example, there are industrial strength x-ray machines – called VACIS machines – that can be mounted on a truck chassis to scan the contents of a container without popping it open; there are electronic seals that can confirm that a container’s contents haven’t been tampered with in its journey from the factory or maquila; and there are various types of GPS and RFID technology to track a truck’s journey to the border and can help ensure that the driver hasn’t been taking any unnecessary detours.
In 21st century international trade, this is as it should be, and there are more gadgets and widgets in the pipeline. Not a week goes by where I don’t get an email from a vendor touting the latest and greatest in supply chain security technology.
But in the year 2012, when you can easily determine when a truck left the maquila, where the driver took a pit stop, whether the trailer was opened and what speed the truck was traveling, you’d think you’d also have a reliable, predictable way of determining how long your shipment will be expected to wait in line to enter the U.S. But you don’t.
That’s not to say that Customs and Border Protection, the agency charged with managing our ports of entry, isn’t trying to accurately track border wait times. CBP’s website conveniently displays up-to-date information on commercial and passenger vehicle wait times for both borders seven days a week, 24 hours a day.
But there’s concern within the trade community that there’s little uniformity in how the agency determines wait times from port to port and when the agency starts the wait time clock. Is it when a driver first brings his truck to a strop because there is another truck in front of him? At bridges, does the clock start when a truck reaches the mid-point of the bridge? At some ports along our border with Mexico, the wait time is determined by the truck’s proximity to some landmark in Mexico, like a tree or fencepost. It might sound rudimentary, but it’s not an altogether bad way of calculating wait times. The trade community, however, simply wants a better sense of how the posted times are being arrived at, and whether there’s a way to promote some uniformity in calculation methods from port to port.
The Government Accountability Office in a July 2010 report on wait time data collection along the U.S.-Canada border discussed CBP’s wait time calculations for 28 northern border ports. According to the report’s executive summary, “CBP officials and the 13 border stakeholders, importers, and trade organizations GAO interviewed about wait times questioned the accuracy and reliability of CBP's wait times data.” And there’s the rub.
Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison recognizes the need to determine how wait times are being calculated while looking for ways to alleviate long lines.
In an April 2012 letter to the GAO, Sen. Hutchison directed the agency to undertake a study on the U.S.-Mexico border similar to the one on the U.S.-Canada border a couple years ago.
Item number 1 in her request to GAO reads, “How does CBP calculate wait times at southwest border ports of entry for cargo screening and inspections, including processing times for primary and secondary inspection, and how accurate are these data?”
The senator’s letter to GAO goes on to ask the government’s investigative arm to assess the role staffing, technology and infrastructure play in border delays; the extent to which CBP collaborates with private sector stakeholders; and the actions CBP has undertaken to reduce delays.
GAO is now in the early stages of its fact-finding work in this important task, and has been working closely with the Border Trade Alliance and our vice chairman, Jesse Hereford of San Antonio, a border infrastructure expert and former Senate aide, in getting a handle on the challenges facing the cross-border trade community.
If I were to hazard a guess, I’d bet the GAO’s findings will be both predictable and illuminating. Predictable in that many will find wait times at the border to be too long, but illuminating in that we’ll have a better sense of how CBP approaches this issue internally and what the agency’s goals are and the steps it’s taking to reach them. The report’s findings will go a long way in establishing a baseline from which we can propose new policy solutions to facilitate cross-border trade and travel. It should make for an interesting read.
Nelson Balido is the president of the Border Trade Alliance