Commercial truckers and travelers have a new way to find out how long it will take them to get through a port of entry on the southern and northern borders of the United States.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection in December launched a free app that displays border wait times and open lane status on Apple and Android smartphones.
In the past, Customs provided estimates of the time to reach an inspection booth on its website based on a visual read of vehicular traffic approaching the facility. More recently, the agency has deployed radio-frequency identification readers in some locations to track the approach of trucks and has undertaken a few pilot projects using Bluetooth technology to pick up the location of people crossing from Mexico and measure their progress in an automated fashion.
Wait times for pedestrian, motorist and commercial vehicle crossings are broken down on the app by lane type—standard, SENTRI, NEXUS, FAST and Ready.
SENTRI and NEXUS are the southern and northern border versions of a trusted traveler program that provides expedited processing in dedicated lanes for pre-approved persons. FAST is a commercial clearance program for low-risk motor carriers. And Ready lanes allow travelers with radio-frequency enabled ID cards, such as a U.S. passport or Legal Permanent Resident (green) card, to benefit from shorter wait times because the technology allows officers in the booth to receive information quicker and without having to manually enter it into the agency’s computer system.
The app is especially helpful on the northern border where some ports of entry are close enough that if one is crowded, drivers have the option of mapping the best route to another, Ana Hinojosa, deputy assistant commissioner of international affairs, said earlier this month during a panel on port efficiency at the Transportation Research Board annual conference in Washington.
Travelers and truck drivers can download the app from the Apple Store and Google Play. No personal information is collected and no registration is required. There have been more than 25,000 downloads since the app’s Dec. 17 debut.
Wait times are posted hourly on the app, but CBP is looking at open-source options from commercial navigation providers such as TomTom that will offer almost live wait-time data, Hinojosa said. CBP plans to run five trial programs this spring at the Peace Bridge in Buffalo, N.Y.; Port Huron, Mich.; Blaine and Sumas, Wash.; and Otay Mesa, Calif.
A fifth of the of the traffic that crosses the southern border uses the SENTRI lanes and a quarter uses the Ready lanes. The Ready lanes have a 38 percent higher throughput than regular lanes and wait times are 30 percent lower, Hinojosa said.
“This is a huge benefit for using the existing infrastructure to increase throughput,” she said.
Along the northern border, about 14 percent of the traffic crosses at NEXUS lanes, but Ready lane use is lower because fewer people possess RFID-enabled documents than in the south. CBP is consulting with its Canadian counterparts to try to increase the saturation of those types of documents, she said.
CBP’s active lane management policy, which gives port directors the ability to adjust the number of lanes being staffed in a particular category based on current traffic patterns, has helped to minimize backups, Hinojosa said. The idea is to ensure that trusted travelers and shippers always have the shortest wait times, followed by Ready lanes and then general lanes.
At the large San Ysidro crossing in California, active lane management, along with construction of new capacity, has helped drop average wait times from 45 minutes to 20 minutes at peak times, the veteran CBP official said.
“Our SENTRI participation is by far the highest at San Ysidro and we want to continue our commitment to those people by keeping the wait times down,” she said.
There now are 25 lanes where CBP has 46 double-stacked booths so it can process two vehicles at a time. Once construction is complete the agency anticipates it will have 35 lanes and 63 booths of capacity, “which will have a huge impact on that community and the trade that’s coming through there,” Hinojosa said.
Active lane management is also used in the commercial truck environment to boost capacity for FAST lanes or lanes for empty trucks.
“This is very, very visible on the northern border where we have a lot of bridge operator engagement. They are very interested in making sure those trucks are coming through as fast as possible and they are very strong advocates for making sure our active lane management process is working as responsively as it possibly can as the traffic patterns shift.
“On a regular basis we increase the number of lanes to the maximum that we have resources for and make sure that the patterns are in line with the type of traffic coming through,” Hinojosa said.
This column was published in the March 2015 issue of American Shipper.