Technology Speeds Up US-Mexico Trade/Project-21 in the JOC

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Technology Speeds Up US-Mexico Truck Trade
Mark Szakonyi, Senior Editor | Apr 18, 2014 4:20PM EDT

A truck with the Project 21 decal.
EL PASO, Texas — The trucks here crossing the border from Juarez, Mexico, with “Project 21” decals are
cleared by U.S. and Mexican customs agents faster than those trucks without the sticker, allowing drivers
to get their goods from Mexican factories to U.S. customers faster.
That’s because the trucks are part of a public-private partnership between the City of El Paso and U.S.
Customs and Border Protection that tracks the trucks from maquiladoras — or Mexican factories focused
on exports — to their final destinations. Technology provided by Secure Origins gives trucks in the
program a higher level of security, since U.S. Customs will be alerted if drivers veer off route and tamper
with the trailer door.

As a result of the technology and better lane segmentation on the Mexican side, trucks in the Project 21
program move through the various border checks in an average of 22 minutes, compared with the
average 76-minute wait time before the program began in January 2013. Those same trucks improve
their turn times on average by 33 percent, saving each truck about 1.6 gallons of diesel per move.
Trucks not in the Project 21 pilot also move faster through the port of entry because congestion as a
whole is reduced, said Nelson Balido, vice president of public affairs at El Paso-based Secure Origins.
Secure Origins wants to bring the same benefits to other U.S.-Mexico and U.S.-Canada border crossings, and is even looking at
offering Mexican authorities the same visibility for southbound trucks. The technology, one of several platforms tracking cross-border
moves, points to a way a cash-strapped U.S. Customs could better facilitate growing U.S.-Mexico trade without adding agents
and spending on ports-of-entry infrastructure. The technology can also show Customs how best to allocate its resources, whether
they be agents or construction dollars, Balido said. “We didn’t add another lane. We didn’t add more people,” he said. “This is a process issue, not a manpower or infrastructure
issue.”

The time savings add up, particularly as cross-border trade grows. More U.S. importers are looking south of the border to feed
North American demand as Chinese labor costs increase and transportation costs rise. Increased sourcing from Mexico is also
being driven by a desire for shorter, leaner supply chains. Every minute of delay at the five busiest U.S.-Mexico border crossings,
which include the El Paso-Juarez port of entry, costs the U.S. economy about $116 million, according to the U.S. Commerce
Department.
But part of the problem is that CBP
doesn’t know exactly how long it takes
to cross the border, since it only
tracks its own operations, not the time
for checks by Mexican customs, the
Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration
and Texas Department of
Public Safety officials, Balido said. The
agency doesn’t give reliable or consistent
cross-border wait time data, nor
does Customs have the necessary
metrics to determine how well it is
facilitating trade, the Government
Accountability Office, the congressional
watchdog, said in a July 2013
report. U.S. Customs didn’t respond to
multiple requests for comment.
Secure Origins monitors trucks hauling goods from
Mexico to the U.S. via its control room in El Paso, Texas
Without a true understanding of cross-border transit times, Balido asks how U.S. Customs will be able
to prove to shippers they are getting their money’s worth for the extra dollars they can spend to get
their goods across the border fast. Under a yet-to-be-launched pilot, shippers moving goods through
various ports of entry — including the land port of Laredo and the Miami seaport and airport —
can pay for additional staffing during busy times or for extended hours.
Equally distressing is that the difference in the time it takes trusted shippers and those not in the
Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism program is “negligible,” said John Rippee, chief operating
officer at Secure Origins. U.S. Customs sells the C-TPAT program and access to FAST lanes at
surface ports of entry as a way to reduce the chances that a participant’s cargo will be stopped for
inspection. But many in the industry doubt whether the cost and time of meeting program requirements
are worth the trouble.

Secure Origins said it hasn’t tracked a significant decrease in northbound transit times since the city of El
Paso and Customs signed a five-year, $1.5 million annual partnership aimed at increasing the number of
agents so more lanes can be opened. Instead, commercial truck drivers have to pay 50 cents for another
“negligible” benefit, Rippee said.  Currently, Secure Origins tracks about 4,500 trucks and 1,500 trailers as they move from maquiladoras and
over four border crossings, including two in El Paso, one in Santa Teresa, N.M., and one in Pharr, Texas.
Shippers and motor carriers pay Secure Origins $50 a month per truck unit the company tracks.
Aside from cargo security and faster cargo processing, Balido said the technology also helps protect motor
carriers themselves. For example, the technology notifies U.S. Customs if the truck goes off its course and
the door is opened prematurely, lifting the onus from the dispatcher or driver to report the erratic behavior.
That’s important because smugglers that have lost millions of dollars in contraband goods could seek
retribution against the driver, dispatcher or motor carrier owner and their families.
Trucking companies “tell us, ‘I don’t want to know if there is a problem. Just tell CBP,’” Balido said.
Autotransportes Chamizal, a Mexico-based flatbed motor carrier, has already seen its tractors move faster
across the border since it joined Project 21 earlier this year, said Oscar Baca, owner and general manager of
the nearly 50-year-old carrier. The technology, which tracks the 45-tractor fleet for solely domestic hauls and
cross-border moves, has also helped the carrier attract more customers because it can better ensure smugglers
don’t contaminate loads or steal shipments.

Secure Origins is hardly the only company aiming to use technology to secure and speed up cross-border
shipments. Powers International tracks trucks via GPS and establishes a chain of custody by verifying the
loader and unloader of the truck and content. The patented technology allows shippers to pinpoint who is to
blame if there are problems and lowers their insurance costs, Powers International Chairman Jim Giermanski
said. Shippers also see faster cargo processing, since Customs agents know that the goods are subject to a
higher level of security. The technology is currently licensed to Department of Defense contractor Global
Track, but Giermanski is working to get more commercial shippers involved.
“Essentially, it takes a trailer or container and makes it like a certified and registered letter handled by the
U.S. Postal Service,” he said. Though technology platforms may be available to better secure and speed up cross-border shipments, the
big question is whether U.S. Customs will get on board. Don’t be surprised if the agency gets an added push,
as technology providers increasingly take their case to members of Congress.

Contact Mark Szakonyi at mszakonyi@joc.com and follow him on Twitter: @szakonyi_joc.
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