Customs seeks quick $12M to fix slowdown

The Customs Service is looking for an additional $12 million this year to shore up its aging Automated Commercial System, which it uses to process $1 trillion in imports to the United States annually.

Since June, ACS has suffered three slowdowns that delayed clearance of goods through U.S. ports for several hours. Within the next month, Customs expects the system to be operating regularly at capacity, making a complete crash likely if the volume of imports surges unexpectedly.

S.W. "Woody" Hall, Customs' chief information officer, said ACS needs a $6 million memory upgrade "in the pretty near term" and another $6 million software upgrade to improve system throughput.

Congress did not provide the money for these enhancements in the agency's current budget because Customs requested it as part of a replacement system that lawmakers did not fully fund.

Legislators have withheld the money in part because they are not convinced Customs can manage the $1.4 billion Automated Commercial Environment project, and they have demanded more detailed plans. But Congress and the Clinton administration also have been arguing over how to pay for ACE.

A broad trade bill that was awaiting House floor action last week would authorize $50 million for the project through an existing user fee, but it would only be available if lawmakers agree to release the funds.

Although Customs deployed the first piece of ACE last spring, under current plans the system would not be fully installed until 2003, with the schedule dependent on funding. The agency plans to keep ACS running, at a cost of $30 million a year, until ACE is in place.

Customs uses ACS to collect data from importers about what they are bringing across the border, to assess whether these shipments need to be inspected and to collect tariffs. In most cases, this information is filed when, or shortly before, goods enter the country.

The problem with ACS stems from its antiquated design. The mainframe-based system performs batch processing of files submitted to it in a single queue from more than 3,000 Customs brokers nationwide.

"There's no parallel processing here," said John Hill, Customs' director of applications development for ACS. "This is circa 1978 at its best."

On normal days, the system can process 90 percent of submissions in less than two minutes, Hill said. But, he added, "when there is a huge peak in imports, the computer can't handle the number of jobs waiting in line to get processed, so it thrashes." Processing time for some submissions can then take as long as 15 minutes.

Those delays can cost money to companies waiting for the shipments. "A couple of hours are not critical if it's infrequent," said Gene Millosh, president of the American Association of Exporters and Importers, whose members include about 400 multinational corporations. "But when you talk about ongoing delays and you look at the industry's volume, that's something else."

How Customs plans to get the funds to upgrade ACS has not been settled. The agency is reviewing whether it can ask Congress for supplemental funding or whether it has to take the money from another project.

Meanwhile, Customs is developing a contingency plan to process imports manually if the system crashes. "This would occur if the system were out for longer than a day," said Betsy Durant, director of strategic trade operations. "We are pretty certain...if nothing is done, the odds are excellent we would have to implement something like this."

Millosh said the only long-term solution, however, is to replace ACS with ACE. In the past, the trade community has balked at paying user fees to fund ACE, which the Clinton administration proposes, but opposition may be weakening.

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