Truckers Look For Border Break

February 6, 2004
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LANSING — Trucking companies across the state are hoping to get some much-needed relief soon from the Federal government to make border crossings into Canada easier.

When Homeland Security pushed the Code Orange button during the past holiday season, traffic at the Ambassador Bridge came to a stop.

Orange puts border guards into their stepped-up security mode, which requires that every car and truck using the popular crossing between Detroit and Windsor be inspected bumper-to-bumper.

Roughly 10,000 trucks cross the Ambassador in both directions each day.

According to the Toronto Star, traffic last month backed up from the bridge for 10 kilometers, or 6.25 miles. Frustrated truckers then tried to find different routes to cross the border, but all they did was cause gridlock on city streets.

In an economy that demands just-in-time delivery of goods and parts, an extended wait at the border means a loss of money and possibly jobs.

For Michigan firms that now pay higher trailer fees, the negative impact that a Code Orange delay can deliver may be even greater than the effect it might have on Ontario haulers.

"The back-ups and the delays are longer than they've been, largely due to the events of 9/11 and the heightened security efforts that are underway at all the U.S. border crossings, and Detroit is no different," said Walter Heinritzi, executive director of the Michigan Trucking Association (MTA).

Heinritzi told the Business Journal that there isn't much truckers can do about the border delays right now, but he did say that an effort was underway to shorten the wait. Manifests would be sent electronically to a designated border crossing well before a semi-trailer is scheduled to arrive.

U.S. Customs would then be able to speed up the paperwork and trucks wouldn't have to sit so long at crossings.

This effort may not seem important to a layman, but for truckers and shippers it's vital. Canada is this nation's biggest trading partner, and the border crossings at Detroit are worth just under $100 million each year to the economy.

"There are programs that are going to be coming online to expedite the process. Once those begin to kick in, we expect to see some alleviation of the congestion at the borders," said Heinritzi.

While the discovery of Mad Cow disease in Washington state has put about $200 million worth of U.S. beef in the deep freeze and brought meat shipping to a standstill out west, Michigan truckers haven't been affected.

"I've heard it's a problem out west, but nothing here in Michigan," said Heinritzi, who added that MTA doesn't represent livestock haulers.

"Our companies do haul meats to the grocery stores, once these are processed," he explained.

The trucking industry got some good news from the Department of Transportation (DOT) a few weeks ago. DOT released statistics late last month that showed continued major improvement in highway safety for the industry.

The fatal crash rate for large trucks fell by 11 percent in 2002 to 1.9 fatal crashes for every 100 million miles driven, the lowest finding since DOT began compiling the data in 1975.

In fact, the trucking industry was the only highway-user group to a record a decline for 2002.

"The number has been trending down for some time now when measured on a per-mile basis. The number of incidents involving trucks has significantly decreased over the last five to seven years," said Heinritzi.

Safety initiatives, drug testing of drivers, an overall heightened sense of safety awareness, stronger enforcement and more safety inspections, and insurance companies taking a harder look at safety programs from haulers are factors that have contributed to the lower fatality rate.

In Michigan, Heinritzi felt a lower speed limit has also played a positive role.

"The other thing I think we have to weigh in, in all fairness, is we've had a recession in this country for about three years, particularly in manufacturing. So you see fewer trucks, and with fewer trucks fewer incidents can occur," he said.

MTA has about 600 members and the industry represents roughly 5 percent of the state's gross product.

One out of every 11 employees in the state, or 250,000, works in the industry. Truckers pay about $10 billion in wages annually.

In 2003, state fees for truck trailers rose from $39 to $300 — a jump of 769 percent that added $76.7 million to Lansing's revenue. In addition, the state charges for-hire companies a $100 fee for every truck a firm owns. In return, the haulers get access to Michigan roads.

Overall, MTA said the industry accounts for 40 percent of highway-use revenue, represents 4 percent of the state's total vehicle population and drives 7 percent of the total miles traveled in Michigan.    

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