Like stock market traders, truck carriers don't fear the daily ups and downs of their business; they fear uncertainty. In a climate where just-in-time (JIT) deliveries have become the standard of service, carriers are finding that new security measures and catch-as-catch-can inspections are leading to inconsistent delivery times and unhappy customers.
Canadian borders crossings in the Detroit area can take as little as 15 minutes or more than an hour, says Mickey Blashfield, director of governmental affairs for Central Transport, which owns the Ambassador Bridge.
“The situation is intolerable in a JIT environment,” says Blashfield. He notes that the crossing was bad before the September terrorist attacks, but is even worse now. And most of the trade that goes through the Detroit border area is auto parts — where JIT is crucial.
Blashfield and others say that even if their trucks are preapproved for crossing, they still must wait in line behind cars and trucks that haven't been vetted. “No one disagrees with the inspections,” he says, “but we need efficiency.”
During meetings in December between Canadian and U.S. officials, both sides agreed that the latest security technology should be used to help move pre-approved trucks across the border more efficiently. But the only solution to actually moving these trucks past other traffic would be a dedicated lane.
The situation is often more acute at the border with Mexico. Texas carriers report similar inconsistencies as do companies that specialize in California-Mexico routes. “Our main problem is uncertainty,” says Armondo Freire, president of Dimex Freight Systems, near San Diego, a drayage carrier that handles 70 crossings daily between California and Mexico. “One day we can wait an hour and a half; the next day it will take eight hours,” he says. “Customers won't pay for waiting time. They laugh at it.”
He notes that every time something negative happens, like the plane crash in Queens, NY, in November, the border crossing feels the effect tenfold. Inspections become more intense, and the lines become longer.
There is little carriers can do to hasten inspections. “We can't complain; we can't do anything,” says Freire. However, he and other carriers invited shipper associations to visit the border so they could see for themselves some of the difficulties they face. Shippers were sympathetic, says Freire, but they still demand on-time deliveries.
Even carriers that don't handle border crossings are affected by unexpected inspections. Carriers are reporting that state inspectors are scrutinizing trucks at inspection stations, taking extra time double-checking driver credentials and eyeballing cargo.
Trucks hauling hazardous materials are especially being singled out for inspections, leading to more delays at weigh stations for them and the trucks behind them. Delays of up to six hours are being reported getting on and off military installations and government complexes.
Unfortunately, the situation may get worse as legislation on the state and federal level increases uncertainty about inspections. For example, a new government agency, the Transportation Security Administration, was established by President Bush on November 19 as part of the Aviation and Transportation Security Act.
The group will have wide ranging powers to issue final rules and directives quickly and without public input. Although the law also establishes an oversight board that can negate any rule issued by the agency, the administration could alter inspection procedures or change driver's license rules immediately if it deems it necessary to counter terrorist threats.
Several cities, including New York, are also inspecting trucks at bridge and tunnel crossings, and this is leading to unexpected delays. “Sometimes they check us out thoroughly and sometimes they don't,” says an official of a carrier that crosses the George Washington Bridge on a daily basis. “Our drivers are sometimes late by as much as half an hour on a three-hour run between New Jersey and Connecticut.”
He notes that if the inspections were consistent, he could factor it into the schedule and costs. “More inspectors would help,” he says, “but mainly we need the same type of inspection every time we cross. It would make life easier.”