Clearing customs has never been a simple process for the 11.5 billion trucks that cross U.S. borders each year. Since 9/11, heightened security has increased delays and frustrations. But U.S. Customs and Border Protection says it's making progress with programs designed to simplify the process.

Last spring CBP completed installation of its Automated Commercial Environment electronic processing system at all land ports along the U.S./Mexican border. There are also ACE ports in several states along the U.S./Canada border. The agency says it's "working diligently" to finish deployment at all land-border ports. At the same time, it has commissioned The American Transportation Research Institute to do a Border Efficiency Assessment focusing on the EManifest system and its use by motor carriers.

ACE is designed to enhance security by giving CBP advance information on shipments coming across the border. Trucking companies enrolled in ACE can submit manifests via Electronic Data Interchange (EDI), through a web-based ACE Secure Data Portal, or through third-party services. When a truck approaches the primary booth, transponder technology signals its arrival and the E-Manifest is automatically retrieved along with pre-filed entries, in-bond requests and other release declarations.

For now ACE is voluntary. Lou Samenfink, executive director of CBP's Cargo Systems Program Office, says they have a few bugs to work out, but when they're confident that the system is where it needs to be, CBP will put the wheels in motion to make ACE mandatory.

"On one side of the coin, it's an investment on the part of truckers," he says. "On the other side of the coin, once the system is in place and truck manifest information is electronically transmitted to our system in advance, we're going to be able to clear things faster. Our guys are going to have a screen filled out with information. We're not going to be swiping bar codes with light pens, or typing in data."

The time savings may only be 10, 15 or 30 seconds per truck but at busy ports "that's a lifetime," he adds.

Eventually ACE will likely replace the Free and Secure Trade program, an agreement between the U.S., Mexico and Canada that allows low-risk participants to receive expedited border processing.

There are two FAST categories for information processing. FAST NCAP incorporates the National Customs Automation Program, a paperless system that uses electronic data transmission and transponders. NCAP was established in the late 1990s, primarily for the auto industry. Samenfink says NCAP data requirements are close to the ACE system, thus NCAP carriers will probably be automatically enrolled in ACE.

FAST Pre-Arrival Processing System (PAPS) is an automated system that uses barcode labels that the carrier attaches to the invoice and the truck manifest. The barcode information is faxed ahead of time to the Customs broker who prepares the necessary paperwork. When a truck arrives at the border the Customs inspector scans the barcode to retrieve the entry information. Carriers using FAST PAPS will eventually have to enroll in the ACE program.

Of course there's more to crossing the border than automated information systems. Samenfink says the best way to get a handle on what's needed is to arrange a meeting with the port director, cargo chief or other official at the port used most. They should be able to walk a carrier through the process and explain paperwork requirements and crossing procedures.

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