Picking up the pace at the border

The U.S. Customs Service has announced a plan to enlist the help of private companies in tightening border security in exchange for processing their imports more quickly.

Under the plan, 60 companies — including General Motors Corp., Target Corp. and Sara Lee Corp. — will equip their trucks with transponders that will electronically transmit information about the cargo to border points at Detroit; Port Huron, Mich.; and Laredo, Texas. The program, announced April 16, eventually will be expanded to every land entry in the United States.

Importers also agreed to work with the government to boost security in their supply chains, including conducting more stringent employee background checks and closer scrutiny of goods being shipped across the border. Participating companies must conduct security assessments and enforce standards every step of the way, and the cargo must be sealed to prevent tampering.

In exchange, those companies' imports will pass through border crossings in seconds instead of waiting up to 12 hours for inspections as some trucks did in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Although waiting times have returned to pre-Sept. 11 levels of 30 minutes or less, importers are still concerned about the potential for delays. Even routine questioning of drivers can increase the time it takes to cross the borders.

Tom Wickham, a spokesman for General Motors, said the program is "a step in the right direction in terms of improving security at the border and allowing the smoother flow of trade between countries."

Using a transponder, a truck could clear customs in 17 seconds, he said. Under the current system used by the majority of haulers, it can take several minutes or an hour to two hours.

The new system would speed the process and make it easier for agents to focus on trouble spots, said Angela Ryan, Customs' port director for Detroit, which handles 25 percent of the imports from Canada.

"We're confident that between what importers are doing and what we're doing, we've got security covered," said Ryan, whose port handles 6,000 trucks a day crossing the Ambassador Bridge.

If a truck does not have a transponder, the driver can present a bar code to customs officials for scanning. The electronic data will appear on a screen for an agent to inspect before allowing the truck into the United States. The program also has dedicated commercial lanes for trucks participating in the program, Ryan said.

Customs officials have been working since Sept. 11 to reduce wait times by increasing the number of agents at the borders and paying them for overtime. But with the need to tighten security and conduct more thorough inspections, the backups at border points sometimes last for several hours.

"What they are trying to do is build on an industry partnership, and some big chunks of industry are stepping up to the plate," said Sam Banks, director of customs work for Sandler & Travis Trade Advisory Services Inc. and a former deputy commissioner at Customs.

The plan also means that customs officers will be able to spend more time on questionable deliveries, according to Olga Grkavac, an executive vice president with the Information Technology Association of America.

"It is using 21st-century technology and allowing customs officials to focus their time on national security threats and illegal contraband rather than legitimate deliveries that go through the borders every day," she said.

An additional 100 companies have submitted applications to join the program, and they will have to meet rigorous requirements before getting approval.

Office of Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge praised the program when it was unveiled at the U.S.-Canadian border in Detroit.

"We will enhance security," Ridge said. "We will facilitate commerce. And in the end, we'll be a safer...country."

The program is part of the $1.3 billion Customs modernization program, which is expected to replace a paper-based system with a Web-based program, according to Charles Armstrong, executive director of the Customs modernization office.

Armstrong said that officials from the United States and Canada hope to enter into an agreement soon that would expedite cargo entering Canada from the United States.

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