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U.S. Department of Transportation U.S. Department of Transportation Icon United States Department of Transportation United States Department of Transportation
January/February 2005
Issue No:
Vol. 68 No. 4
Publication Number:
Table of Contents

Border Planning for The 21st Century

by Jill L. Hochman

Multiagency partnerships, innovative strategies, and new technologies are improving the safety, efficiency, and security of overland ports of entry.

One of only two land ports of entry in Idaho, Porthill (shown here at dusk) is a permit port, which means that importations of cargo must be approved in advance by the service port at Great Falls. Photo: General Services Administration.

Growing travel and trade between the United States and its neighbors, Canada and Mexico, make border crossings a key contributor to the Nation's economic health. A snapshot of recent statistics tells the story: According to the North American Transportation Statistics database, the United States traded $629 billion in goods with Canada and Mexico in 2003, with trucks carrying 64 percent of that freight.

Truck crossings at the U.S.-Canada border reached 13.3 million, and truck crossings from Mexico into the United States reached 4.2 million in 2003. The value of freight shipments moving between the United Sates and Canada and Mexico has risen 170 percent since 1990, growing at an average rate of almost 8 percent a year.

In addition, data from the U.S. Department of Transportation's (USDOT) Bureau of Transportation Statistics show that about 80 percent of passenger vehicle trips across the borders with Canada and Mexico involve same-day travel to take part in everyday activities, such as commuting to jobs, shopping, visiting family and friends, and accessing health care.

Recognizing the value of cross-border travel and trade, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) is involved in a number of initiatives with its State, Federal, and international partners to address the challenges of improving mobility and security at overland border crossings.

"Canada and Mexico are the Nation's top two trading partners, so the U.S. borders with Canada and Mexico represent a vital aspect of the U.S. economy," says FHWA Associate Administrator for Planning, Environment, and Realty Cynthia Burbank. "Improving the way we communicate and plan for changes that will take place at the U.S. land ports of entry is one of the most important challenges FHWA and its transportation partners face."

With its counterparts in Mexico and Canada, FHWA created joint working groups that cooperate on planning and facilitating cross-border movements. In addition, FHWA is involved in initiatives with other agencies and organizations to share technologies, streamline the movement of cargo trucks across borders, adopt innovative tools to plan border-crossing improvements, create frameworks that enable key technologies to work together, and measure success in achieving objectives in global connectivity.

"As increasing traffic and new security protocols make it more expensive and complicated to move across borders, it's critical that we work closely with our partners to facilitate a more efficient transportation system," Burbank says. "We may each have different interests and points of view, but we share common goals. The jigsaw puzzle doesn't get completed unless everyone works together."

Cooperation on the Southern Border

The 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) eliminated many trade barriers between the United States and its neighbors. Spurred by the ratification of NAFTA and increasing traffic at border crossings, USDOT identified the need for a mechanism to address binational transportation issues with Mexico's Secretariat of Communications and Transportation (SCT). A 1994 memorandum of understanding between the two countries established a Joint Working Committee (JWC) to coordinate planning and programming of intermodal projects along the U.S.-Mexico border.

San Ysidro, CA, (shown here from above) is home to the world's busiest land border crossing, where U.S. Interstate 5 crosses into Mexico at Tijuana, Mexico. Each year, more than 14 million vehicles and 40 million people enter the United States at San Ysidro.

The JWC's primary focus is to plan overland transportation and facilitate efficient, safe, and economical cross-border movement of people and goods. Its goals include promoting effective communication between the national governments and border States, developing coordinated plans for land transportation, and evaluating current and future impacts of traffic demand on transportation infrastructure.

The committee's members include FHWA, SCT, the U.S. Department of State, the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and departments of transportation (DOTs) for the 10 U.S. and Mexican States on both sides of the border. The committee meets twice a year, once in each country.

One of the JWC's first major accomplishments was a jointly funded, binational study completed in 1998. The study looked at the two countries' border transportation infrastructure, trade flow processes for commercial vehicles, transportation planning processes, and ability to handle expanding trade flow across the border. A key product of the study is a databank, maintained by FHWA and the Mexican Transportation Institute, containing information on trade and traffic flows at ports of entry, socioeconomic data for border areas, and existing and planned border infrastructure improvements. The databank is available on the Web at

A new memorandum of understanding signed in 2000 reinforced the importance of the JWC and identified key topics for the committee to work on. One project evaluated the infrastructure needs of the 42 major transportation corridors in the border region and identified 311 significant transportation projects, 258 in the United States and 53 in Mexico, to meet those needs. The project developed a systematic approach for assessing transportation infrastructure needs that can be used in future assessments, as well as an evaluation tool that States can use to prioritize transportation corridor needs.

In an ongoing effort, the committee is looking at financing tools available for transborder projects from USDOT, SCT, States, municipalities, binational agencies such as the North American Development Bank, and international agencies such as the World Bank. The group created an inventory of financing options and is developing workshops on border finance aimed at State and local transportation and finance officials. Another study is analyzing short-term, low-cost ways to solve road infrastructure and traffic management bottlenecks that slow the movement of people and goods at the U.S.-Mexico border. The objective is to develop a methodology for conducting consistent analyses of bottlenecks along the entire border.

Communicating on Northern Border Issues

Growing trade and traffic flows, the resulting border delays, and increasing interest in developing interoperable transportation systems also led U.S. officials to establish a formal agreement with their Canadian counterparts. In 2000, the United States and Canada signed a memorandum of cooperation highlighting the importance of coordination between the two countries on transportation along their shared border. The memorandum cited a need for increasing the degree and speed of communication between USDOT and Transport Canada, as well as the need to exchange information on border transportation issues of mutual concern.

Trucks cross the Blue Water Bridge over the St. Clair River, connecting the communities of Port Edward/ Sarnia, Ontario, to Port Huron, MI.

The U.S.-Canada Transportation Border Working Group (TBWG) was created to fill that need. When the group first met in Windsor, Ontario, in 2002, the first order of business was to establish a core membership of Federal, State, and Provincial entities from both sides of the border. The members then collaborated on an action plan identifying key priorities, including data collection, border technology programs, and information exchange.

The group meets twice annually, with meetings rotating between the United States and Canada. In addition, subcommittees on data, technology, and communications issues collaborate year-round on projects and initiatives.

"Canada and the United States share the largest bilateral trading relationship in the world. It is essential, therefore, that the United States and Canada collaborate closely on border issues to ensure the safe and efficient flow of people and goods between our two countries," says Paul Arvanitidis, senior policy advisor for Transport Canada. "The opportunity to meet regularly and work with a network of representatives from all border jurisdictions, including customs agencies and other federal players, is invaluable for advancing our border initiatives."

Although the membership includes primarily government entities, the TBWG works with other partners on border transportation issues, including metropolitan planning organizations, chambers of commerce, stakeholder coalitions, and the private sector. U.S. agencies participating include FHWA, State DOTs along the border, Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the U.S. Department of State, and the General Services Administration (GSA). Canadian participants include Transport Canada, Provincial and territorial governments, Foreign Affairs Canada, the Canada Border Services Agency, and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

In one TBWG effort, the New York State DOT led a committee to develop the report, Border Infrastructure Compendium 2003 and Beyond. The compendium includes descriptions of ownership, physical layout, and annual traffic and trade for the ports of entry, as well as detailed information on current or planned projects in support of border crossings.

The study showed that 224 projects have been proposed to improve infrastructure and inspection operations at or near the U.S.-Canada border at an estimated cost of $13.4 billion. The TBWG plans to update the compendium periodically and use it to facilitate interagency planning, coordination, and funding efforts.

FHWA spearheaded a TBWG effort to create a Northern Border Noteworthy Practices Reference Guide, a Web-based compilation of best practices for facilitating the movement of goods and people across the border. The guide describes approaches used by Federal, State, and local agencies in conducting day-to-day border activities.

The following are among the best practices included in the guide:

  • Installing trailers that detect vehicle backups at border crossing locations. Upon detecting a queue, the system automatically activates portable variable message signs that display preprogrammed messages to alert motorists approaching border crossings to expect delays.
  • Providing a booklet for commercial drivers explaining what they need in the way of forms and documents for crossing the U.S.-Canadian border. Many long-haul drivers cross the borders infrequently, and such a document enables drivers to familiarize themselves with the layout of a port and check their documentation before arrival.
  • Holding classes once a month to familiarize truck drivers with policies and procedures at the border. In Alexandria Bay, NY, the training has decreased the timeframe for releasing cargo. The guide is available on the Web at

Also through the TBWG, Transport Canada, together with Provincial and interested State partners, is pursuing a national roadside survey of heavy truck data. "The survey will be a critical source of information for deciding what future transportation infrastructure investments Canada will pursue at the border," adds Arvanitidis.

Sharing Technology Across Borders

A partnership that complements the work of the JWC and TBWG is the Border Technology Exchange Program (BTEP), which FHWA initiated to provide opportunities for sharing information and technology among the U.S. border States and their counterparts in Mexico and Canada. Its mission is to enhance the knowledge and skill of transportation personnel in the border regions through the exchange of technology, information, and technical training to facilitate the safe, efficient, and secure movement of people and goods.

A hand-operated ferry crosses the Rio Grande River at Los Ebanos, TX. The small facility, located in the southwestern corner of Hidalgo County, TX, about 5 kilometers (3 miles) south of Expressway 83, was an ancient ford used by American Indians and early Spanish colonists in the late 17th century. Today the facility processes noncommercial and pedestrian traffic, carrying around 3,350 cars and 8,500 pedestrians yearly.

"FHWA has worked for years with other countries on technology exchange, but the passage of NAFTA provided us with an opportunity to have an entire program devoted to this activity," says Ed Rodriguez, BTEP program manager for FHWA.

The technology exchange program with Mexico, launched in 1994 with FHWA seed money, includes the States of Arizona, California, New Mexico, and Texas. On the Mexican side of the border, the members are Baja California, Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo Leon, Sonora, and Tamaulipas.

Over the past decade, the program has resulted in several technology exchange efforts between U.S. and Mexican States. Highway agencies in California and Baja California, for example, are conducting joint regional planning for transportation facilities. Arizona and Sonora have created a local area network to monitor motor carrier registration and prevent multiple entries. Chihuahua transportation officials have adopted pavement-marking standards from FHWA's Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices and are using a New Mexico laboratory to validate the content of asphalt additives being used in highway construction.

The program also was the catalyst for the creation of six technology transfer (T2) centers along the U.S.-Mexico border, including one T2 center at a university in each Mexican border State and one in San Diego, CA. The centers serve as hubs to disseminate information such as transportation standards and best practices as well as offer training to transportation professionals and technicians in the latest methods and technologies for highway planning, design, and infrastructure. Both FHWA and the universities provide instructors for the training programs.

"For us, the Border Technology Exchange Program provides access to a country with one of the most highly developed transportation technology systems in the world," says Juan Aviles, engineer on exchange from Mexico, with the Nuevo Leon Border Technology Exchange Program Center. "It also helps us to gain an understanding and develop an excellent working relationship between our countries. Plus, we are able to provide information to our local stakeholders in Mexico."

The BTEP has been so successful on the U.S.-Mexico border that it is now being expanded to include the U.S.-Canada border, where technology exchange programs are underway in Alaska and Washington. In the Alaskan program, transportation officials work closely with their counterparts in Yukon, Canada, on issues that include winter weather construction and rural road maintenance. A chief area of focus is construction and maintenance of the Alaska Highway, a major roadway linking Alaska and the Yukon Territory.

BTEP was designed to create an environment that fosters uniformity and consistency among border States that can improve U.S. motor carrier access and raise the confidence levels of U.S. shippers and other users. But a linchpin of BTEP is its flexibility, says Rodriguez, which enables the program to meet the unique technical needs of the States along the borders.

"The success of the program is evidenced by the fact that it has grown from initial seed money in 1994 to include six technology centers on the U.S.-Mexican border and is now expanding to Canada," says Rodriguez. "Ten years of growth is something to be proud of."

Freight in the FAST Lane

Customs clearance processes for cargo moving across country lines can create bottlenecks for truck traffic at border crossings. The Free and Secure Trade (FAST) program, a joint initiative involving CBP and agencies in Mexico and Canada, offers expedited processing for cross-border truck traffic for importers, carriers, and drivers who satisfy the program's security requirements.

Under the program, shipments for approved companies, transported by approved carriers using registered drivers, are cleared across borders with greater speed. The program also reduces the cost of compliance by minimizing the requirements for customs clearance, eliminating the need for importers to transmit data for each transaction, dedicating lanes for FAST clearances, and verifying trade compliance away from the border.

Free and Secure Trade (FAST) lanes, such as this one at Port Huron, MI, reduce waiting times at designated border crossings for importers, carriers, and drivers cleared to participate in the program.

Dedicated FAST lanes have dramatically reduced processing time for truck shipments, according to Enrique Tamayo, CBP program manager. "Where we have dedicated FAST lanes, a process that used to take 3 to 4 hours now takes minutes," he says. "The program allows us to redirect resources to the trucks we need to be looking at instead of FAST trucks."

FAST participation is open to importers, carriers, and drivers who have a demonstrated history of compliance with all relevant legislation and regulations, and have acceptable books, records, and audit trails. Each application is put through extensive security review.

Border crossings with FAST lanes are equipped with advanced technology to improve efficiency in screening commercial traffic. Antennas, for example, read small transponders attached to the windshield of each truck identified by an importer as a participant in the program, enabling customs officials to access computerized information on the truck quickly.

CBP expanded the program recently by opening designated FAST lanes in San Diego, CA; Port Huron, MI; El Paso, Laredo, and Pharr, TX; and Blaine, WA. FAST lanes operate at additional border crossings in Michigan, Montana, New York, North Dakota, Vermont, and Washington State.

In addition, CBP coordinates with State DOTs and agencies in Mexico and Canada to develop exclusive routes to expedite trucks to FAST lanes at border crossings. "The California DOT helped us construct an additional lane for the new San Diego crossing," says Tamayo.

For more information on the FAST program, visit

Modeling Movements With Border Wizard

Increasing traffic volumes and delays in processing commercial vehicles have led to significant congestion at U.S. border crossings with Canada and Mexico. In addition, a new national emphasis on security calls for more efficient and secure border crossings.

Border Wizard is a computer-based tool that simulates cross-border movements. This screen grab from the program includes a computer generated model showing the specific port of entry and summarizes the number of booths and other information such as wait times in hours.

Coordinating improvements to ports of entry can be a challenge for U.S. agencies involved in border activities. Therefore, FHWA, in conjunction with GSA, CBP, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), developed a tool called Border Wizard to coordinate improvements to border crossings that increase security, traffic throughput, and trade efficiency. Border Wizard, available from GSA, is on FHWA's list of priority technologies and innovations that have proven benefits and are ready for deployment.

Border Wizard is a computer-based model that simulates cross-border movements of automobiles, buses, trucks, and pedestrians. It can simulate all Federal inspection activities—including customs, immigration, motor carrier, and security procedures—at any land border crossing to determine infrastructure, facility, and operational needs to ensure safe and secure operations.

"The primary benefit of Border Wizard is the ability for everybody to see the same picture, so improvements to border crossings are based on a model instead of a best guess," says Sylvia Grijalva, a community planner in the FHWA Office of Interstate and Border Planning.

The program also is designed to work with other traffic modeling and planning tools used by States and metropolitan planning organizations. In fact, FHWA is sponsoring a series of case studies to assess the feasibility and effectiveness of Border Wizard as an integrated tool for transportation planning purposes.

The case studies involve organizations in four locations—El Paso, TX; San Diego, CA; Whatcom County, WA; and southeast Michigan—that are documenting their use of Border Wizard as part of their transportation planning processes. In coordination with the Border Station Partnership Council, which consists of the four agencies that developed Border Wizard, FHWA will use data from the studies to leverage the tool to enhance transportation planning.

CBP has used Border Wizard to evaluate proposed inspection methods and routing in commercial operations at both northern and southern border stations. In addition, ICE now collects data at all major border stations in preparation for using Border Wizard to evaluate inbound and outbound inspection operations and assess the impacts of security changes at U.S. borders.

In the future, FHWA expects that Border Wizard will enable users to run studies on multiple border stations simultaneously and compare their effects on each other. These studies will be useful in analyzing proposed border station development and in determining when an area will reach capacity and require a new border station to be built.

Creating an Information Architecture

Although installing new technologies offers the promise of improved efficiency, if the systems used by the various agencies are not compatible, the upgrades could prove counterproductive instead.

"Many agencies are planning or implementing technology and information systems to help them accomplish their work," says Crystal Jones, transportation specialist in the FHWA Office of Freight Management and Operations. "But lack of coordination and collaboration among these various agencies could result in the deployment of technology that is not interoperable, is redundant, or is an impediment to efficient operations."

To eliminate problems with interoperability, the United States and its neighbors are collaborating to develop information architectures that promote data sharing and coordination among the multiple agencies that operate at border crossings, as well as to increase the interoperability of technologies used to support their operations. An architecture is the communications and information backbone that supports and unites key technologies, enabling them to work together and communicate with each other. It describes the interaction among various physical components of the transportation system, such as travelers, vehicles, sensors, databases, and control centers.

The architecture does not dictate which technologies agencies must use, but it helps them ensure that the technologies they choose are interoperable with other systems, making them easier to upgrade and cheaper to produce and use. The architecture is not a strategy or plan, but a tool for planning the integration of systems at the border.

The port of entry at Calexico, CA, is shown here at dusk. Located 200 kilometers (125 miles) east of San Diego, the building features glassfiber tensile roof structures reminiscent of the tents and covered wagons that once characterized the region.

The Smart Border Declaration signed by the United States and Canada in December 2001 included a 30-point action plan to enhance the security of the U.S.-Canada border while facilitating the legitimate flow of people and goods. One action item called on the United States and Canada to ensure the interoperability of their technologies.

As part of the U.S.-Canada TBWG, FHWA and Transport Canada are spearheading a Border Flow Information Architecture initiative to support the deployment of interoperable technologies. A working group established in February 2004 and composed of representatives from agencies involved in processes at or near the border is coordinating the effort in the north. Since then, FHWA expanded the effort to include an initiative under the JWC aimed at developing an architecture for technologies used on the U.S.-Mexico border.

The initiatives are building frameworks for operations on both borders that depict the flow of information between government agencies and components of the transportation system as they relate to border processes, such as the flow of advanced traveler information from inspection and enforcement agencies to transportation organizations.

"The U.S.-Mexico and U.S.-Canada products will be similar, but they will focus on the specific operational needs of each border," Jones says.

Measuring Our Progress Toward Global Connectivity

One of FHWA's strategic objectives is global connectivity, which is aimed at facilitating a more efficient global transportation system that enables economic growth and development. As part of its efforts to meet that objective, FHWA identified travel time variability and border crossing delays as potential key indicators of performance for the transportation system.

Low variability in travel times enables freight carriers to get goods to market according to more predictable schedules, which is an important factor in determining how the carriers allocate resources. Delays result in economic, environmental, social, and governmental costs to border communities, passengers in automobiles and trains, importers and exporters, shippers, and public agencies.

View of U.S. Customs and Border Protection Building and Inspection Booths, Niagara Falls, NY. Built in 1941, Rainbow Bridge is one of the busiest ports of entry into the United States. The bridge is operated by the Niagara Falls Bridge Commission and leased to the General Services Administration.

FHWA is leading an initiative to establish performance measures for travel time reliability on freight-significant corridors, such as interstates, and delay times at border crossings. Performance measures tell public officials and citizens in a quantitative way how well services are meeting customer needs.

FHWA has begun collecting travel time data for freight-significant corridors, including Interstates 5, 70, 65, 45, and 10. The initiative uses private sector data collected from tracking and communications technologies, such as satellites, that a number of trucking firms already use to manage inventory.

"We are attempting to use technologies that commercial carriers already have in place to calculate average speeds and travel times that we can use in developing performance measures," Jones says.

Next steps will focus on developing performance measures for delay at four U.S.-Canadian border crossings. The technologies that will be used to gather data on crossing times have not yet been chosen, but one avenue under consideration is using commercial vehicles as probes.

Partnerships For Progress

To meet the growing challenge of transportation issues on the Nation's borders, FHWA created a land border team that includes representatives from the FHWA Office of Planning, Environment, and Realty; Office of Interstate and Border Planning; Office of Freight Management and Operations, and division offices.

"Organizationally, we recognize how complex these issues are, so we've created a virtual team from throughout FHWA to work with our partners to address them," says Burbank. "Whether it's by enhancing operations, building infrastructure, or developing intelligent transportation systems and safety facilities, FHWA's role is to make sure we keep people and commerce moving efficiently across our borders."

The Mariposa border crossing at Nogales, AZ, (shown in this aerial photo) is Arizona's largest commercial port of entry, with a 96-percent increase in exports and imports between 1994 and 2000.

By creating partnerships to deploy innovative technologies and strategies to expedite border crossings, transportation and other agencies involved in border operations are working to facilitate trade and travel throughout North America. Through innovative efforts such as the U.S.-Mexico JWC and the U.S.-Canada TBWG, government agencies and other partners are cooperating on binational transportation issues, evaluating current and future demands, and sharing the latest technologies. New technologies such as Border Wizard and initiatives to develop information flow architectures and performance measures are helping agencies plan and coordinate their efforts more efficiently and cost effectively.

"By working together on these issues, we're not focusing just on the needs of individual countries, but looking at how we can enhance the movement of people and goods throughout North America," says Burbank. "FHWA's commitment to this effort will continue to grow as NAFTA brings our countries even closer together."

Jill L. Hochman, director of the FHWA Office of Interstate and Border Planning, created and cochairs the TBWG with Transport Canada to address binational issues related to the northern U.S. border. Among her responsibilities include directing the FHWA borders and corridors programs, spearheading FHWA's safety conscious planning efforts (a proactive approach to considering safety in transportation planning), and directing improvements to travel demand forecasting and modeling, along with land border communication and coordination. A University of Maryland graduate and long-time employee of USDOT, Hochman worked for the Office of the Secretary of Transportation, Federal Railroad Administration, and U.S. Coast Guard before joining FHWA in 1987.

For more information on transportation planning on the U.S.-Canada border, visit For more information on U.S.-Mexico border planning, go to