There is arguably no more potent indicator of the frail state of the Canadian economy than cross-border traffic figures. By the end of 2009, it is expected that two million fewer commercial trucks will have made the trip between the US and Ontario—the province with the greatest over-the-road cross-border traffic—than did in 2008. The numbers are smaller across the rest of Canada, but the story is similar.
The drop in traffic is attributable to a combination of factors. There have been steep declines in shipments that typically travel between Canada and the US, most notably in the automotive and consumer packaged goods sectors. The Canadian dollar is currently hovering at a point that’s too high for Canadian exporters to boost business but not high enough for importers to gain any real advantage. Complicating matters is a burgeoning sense of protectionism that is keeping many US shippers from looking to the north.
With less traffic at the border, one might expect that shippers who do continue to ship cross-border would benefit from a smooth, quick transit. But it hasn’t been the case.
“Despite the drop in trucks going over the border and decreased trade, delays going over the border have remained consistent,” says Jennifer Fox, assistant vice-president of operations and education at the Ontario Trucking Association.
“It still takes a truck an average of 10 to 15 minutes to cross the border.”
Fox attributes the delays to the increased regulatory requirements enacted on both sides of the border. Since 9/11, security measures between Canada and the US have steadily intensified. Over time, the focus has changed—officials are now more occupied with the trio of issues she calls “drugs, thugs and bugs” than they are with the threat of terrorism—but the intensity remains high.
That means that while traffic may be down, the level of scrutiny is not. In fact, Brian Bowen, a Customs and cross-border specialist for the Private Motor Truck Council, reports that inspections are becoming more onerous. “Since there’s less traffic, inspectors have the luxury of asking more questions.”
While there are several voluntary security programs intended to expedite the passage of low-risk cargo—the Canadian Partners in Protection (PIP), the US Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism (C-TPAT) and the joint Free and Secure Trade (FAST) programs, each of which requires rigorous prep work—their effectiveness is rendered null if a border agent on duty chooses to investigate.