U.S. customs officials will be allowed to operate on Canadian soil in Surrey to inspect southbound trucks approaching the Pacific Highway border crossing in a new effort to reduce wait times.
The six-month pilot project agreed to March 14 by federal, provincial and U.S. officials designates a pre-clearance area for U.S.-bound trucks that will then be fast-tracked when they actually get to the border.
Truckers heading south can face significant waits at the border to get inspected by U.S. agents.
But B.C. Trucking Association president and CEO Louise Yako isn't yet convinced the new project will result in improved crossing times.
She noted a series of other border efficiency initiatives have already resulted in average southbound truck wait times at the Pacific Highway crossing being reduced over the past year from 52 minutes to a recent low of just 16 minutes.
"We're not sure how much can be gained from this new process," Yako said. "While we're pleased Pacific Highway has been identified as a pilot, we don't want this to erode the work that has already been done."
Overhead lighting and new signs will be installed at the Highway 15 pre-inspection site nearing the border.
A more immediate concern for truckers is the impending budget-driven layoffs of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) staff who carry out their inspections.
Yako said the industry is bracing for the impact of longer border waits starting in mid-April.
"There is a lot of concern among our members," she said.
There's talk of pursuing some sort of contingency plan, she said, if a worst-case scenario develops, partly crippling cross-border trucking for months.
The main hope is that U.S. legislators reach a speedy deal on budget reductions to avert the indiscriminate across-the-board cuts to federal departments that were recently triggered.
CBP officials in the U.S. had warned the peak waits at the busiest land crossings could double to five hours or more as a result of cuts in their department.