San Diego Business Journal

In an attempt to increase efficiency and security at the border, truckers traveling between San Diego and Mexico will begin to change the way they operate.

Regulations, which will be enforced by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection and go into effect Nov. 15, will streamline the cross-border traffic at Otay Mesa, establishing a more secure border between the two countries, officials say.

Truckers will have to send Customs and Border Protection officials prior notification of the intent of the vehicle, what it is carrying, who the driver is and where the vehicle is headed.

The notification must be sent electronically one hour before the vehicle arrives at the Otay Mesa border, which handles more than 3,000 trucks per day.

Trucking companies must forgo the old method of transmittal through paper documents and instead utilize electronic capabilities.

The attempt to go paperless by mid-November will most likely be met with some difficulties, as the mechanisms needed to relay the notification to Customs have not yet been developed.

"As of Nov. 15, the prior notification becomes official, but there is no system yet for the truckers to use," said Steven Zisser, a specialist in U.S. Customs and international trade and founder of the Zisser Group, a San Diego-based international trade consulting and management company. "Instead the Customs broker will have to file the notification."

The software needed by trucking companies to send their documents electronically is still being developed and tested and might not be ready for several months, Zisser said.

In the meantime, trucking companies will have to send their documents via an Internet portal on the Customs and Border Protection Web site or though the current method, which entails that companies send their paperwork to the Customs broker, who then gives that information to the truck drivers, who pass it along to Customs.

However, the transition from paper to electronic documents may be the beginning of a transformation within the entire industry, Zisser said.

"In theory, what it should do is force companies to be more sophisticated," Zisser said. "In the past, trucking companies stayed out of it. And now Customs is saying that they will be responsible for everything. The trucking companies will have to get more sophisticated."

Alejandra Mier y Teran, the executive director of the Otay Mesa Chamber of Commerce, the South Bay's advocacy organization dedicated to enhancing employment and economic opportunities, said she sees the new regulations as a push for modernization within the industry.

"Customs has been working for years to modernize the whole trade system, and that is basically what this is," Mier y Teran said. "It's sort of transforming the trucking industry. Now they have to be sophisticated and automated."

But Armando Freire, the president and owner of Dimex Freight Systems, Inc., a San Diego-based trucking company, said the new regulations aren't a step toward modernization. They are another necessary step needed to cross the border.

"At this point we don't have a clear understanding from U.S. Customs," Freire said. "There is a new ruling and we will comply, but we don't know how."

Without the means to transmit the documents electronically, as regulated by Customs, the trucking industry is in a wait-and-see mode.

"We are waiting for Customs to give us clear directions," Freire said. "The question is not if we are going to do it; the question is how. Right now, Customs brokers prepare manifests (documents that detail the truckers' intent), and when our drivers reach the border, they hand those documents over to Customs. Everything is done by brokers, not by us. In the future, it will fall on the carrier, but we don't have the necessary software; we don't have anything."

Freire said that in the last two to three years, regulations in the trucking industry have continually changed and modified because of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"This is one of the numerous steps Customs is implementing to secure the border," Freire said.

For 2003, commercial trucks crossing from the San Ysidro and Otay Mesa ports into Mexico accounted for 68 percent of the trucks traveling out of California, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, a statistical agency of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

At the Otay Mesa Commercial Port of Entry, 55 percent of the trucks that pass through are loaded and 45 percent are empty, Mier y Teran said.

With thousands of trucks passing through the port daily, implementing regulations that will allow Customs to know what trucks are heading to the border before they get there will likely decrease wait times, she said.

"It certainly is a security measure that enhances trade facilitation. It is one of the great programs that helps the nation because we know we are more secure as a nation," Mier y Teran said. "But at the same time it doesn't add additional hours to cross into the U.S. It's basically saying 'I know you, I trust you. Come on in.' And that way they can dedicate more time to people they don't know."

In addition to the new regulations, Customs opened another northbound lane at Otay Mesa Oct. 15 exclusively for authorized participants in the Free and Secure Trade program, commonly known as FAST.

The first completely paperless cargo release mechanism put into place by Customs and Border Protection officials, the program enables participants who have been certified to bypass waiting in line.

"The huge thing here is the FAST lane. The people who will be interested in this program are the people who cross frequently, and the people who cross frequently make up the bulk of the traffic," Mier y Teran said. "So if we can get them to go in the special lane, it will help everyone, not only FAST participants, because it will basically divert traffic from the regular lane."

Wait times for commercial truckers at the border for the last several weeks have been averaging about four to five hours, Mier y Teran said.

October is one of the busiest months at the border, as truckers transport shipments for the holiday season, she said.

With the FAST lane, wait times could be as little as 15 minutes, Zisser said.