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Bernie Sanders

Challenging Customs

Truckers, at least, find wait times shorter at the border


Published December 5, 2007 at 12:32 p.m.

With all the border bashing going on in Vermont lately, one might think there isn’t a single soul in the Green Mountains with something nice to say about Customs officials. Not so fast. One group of men and women — who probably cross the border more times in a year than most Vermonters do in their entire lives — say things are looking up. Who are these border groupies? Truckers!

Since a fall meeting with U.S. Customs and Border Protection honcho Steven Farquharson — CBP’s director of field operations for New England — many Vermont truckers are reporting shorter waits, more cooperative Customs officers and improved signage directing car traffic away from lanes meant solely for 18-wheelers. “There’s been some attitude changes, from management to the inspectors who do the work,” says State Senator Bobby Starr (D-Essex-Orleans), who’s been trucking in Vermont for more than 40 years.

But the relationship between these independent road warriors and the Customs officials who hold the keys to our northern neighbors’ kingdom has not always been so rosy. In the decades leading up to 9/11, truckers — particularly those in northern Vermont — grew accustomed to doing business in Canada. In fact, some trucking companies came to depend on it. But in the years following the 2001 terrorist attack, things changed. What was once a reasonably quick commute north to pick up cargo gradually became hours idling in lines that snaked for miles down the highway.

“We were having anywhere between 15-minute and two-hour waits, and this was a common thing,” says Starr. “Going into Canada was a piece of cake, but getting home was impossible.”

On top of that, truckers recall dealing with snippy customs officials who were quick to search cabs and cargo, and request identification. “They were pretty touchy,” Starr confirms. “You could get into an argument with them pretty easily.” Truckers grew accustomed to getting heat at the border. And CBP’s list of regulations continued to grow. “You would just get used to doing it one way, and they would change it to something else,” says Starr.

About two years ago, CBP started ratcheting up requirements on permits that allowed truckers to access nine of the 12 border crossings on the Vermont line, says Nora Ehrlich, assistant director for trade at CBP’s Boston field office. Without the permits, truckers were limited to three commercial border ports, in Derby Line, Highgate Springs and Norton. These sites, explains Ehrlich, are equipped with high-tech monitoring devices, such as X-ray machines and radiation portal monitors. She says permits to use the state’s nine other ports are granted “at the discretion of CBP,” and that, after 9/11, “We further strengthened the permit port program.”

As part of this clampdown, Starr, whose small trucking company, Starr’s Transportation, sits just a mile from the North Troy border crossing, was told his rigs could no longer use that port. Since the North Troy crossing is not considered a commercial port and therefore lacks the high-tech monitoring equipment, Starr needs a permit to access it. His original permit expired in September 2006. When he reapplied, CBP denied the request, which meant his trucks were forced to travel an additional 83 miles to Derby Line en route to their loading site in Québec. The trip used to be 6 miles. “The Department of Homeland Security and Customs, they lost all kinds of common sense,” says Starr.

The additional mileage cost Starr’s company dearly. The 886 border crossings his trucks completed in the year after he lost his permit amounted to 44,000 extra miles, 8500 additional gallons of fuel and 1500 additional man-hours. The annual price tag? $80,000. For a small trucking company, that’s a significant blow.

After repeatedly being stonewalled by CBP officials, local truckers like Starr turned to Senator Bernie Sanders for help. Things began to change “once the big shots showed up,” says Starr.

Sanders facilitated a meeting in late September between some two-dozen truckers and CBP Director Farquharson, among other officials, at the North Troy Elementary School. Truckers voiced their concerns — and, apparently, CBP listened. “Just to get [CBP] here must have been quite a job,” says Starr, describing the meeting as one of the most productive he’s attended in all his years working in government.

Since the meeting, truckers have noticed that CBP has opened an additional truck lane at commercial ports, improved signage, and revamped border officers’ modus operandi. They are no longer required to inspect every third or fourth piece of cargo that goes through the port, says Starr, and appear to be using more common sense when questioning drivers. Customs officers are allowed to “be themselves, rather than a robot,” says Starr.

Ted Woo, a CBP spokesman in Boston, says he cannot discuss the specifics of how officers detect incoming terrorist threats. “The process that the officers use in clearing trucks is an internal thing,” he says. While the main goal at CBP is to “stop terrorists from coming in,” Woo notes, he acknowledges a willingness to cooperate with travelers, both commercial and recreational.

Although CBP’s Ehrlich cannot discuss specifics of lane openings or signage changes at the border — attributing the improvements to better management at individual ports — she says the Customs agency is considering increasing border staff.

Starr also gives Sanders credit for getting his North Troy permit application reconsidered and approved. Now his truckers can access that port for cargo pickups, saving his company time, money and energy. Sanders was traveling on Monday and unavailable for comment, but Rep. Peter Welch spoke generally about the matter Monday in Burlington.

Welch, who was in Derby Line last week to discuss myriad border concerns, says the key to success is avoiding a “one-size-fits-all” approach to border protection. Experienced border-patrol officers should be given reasonable discretion to “distinguish between the local librarian and a situation that warrants more inquiry.” He says public meetings at which citizens can voice concerns are essential, as is border-management accountability.

But are the recent improvements in border crossings for truckers going to last, considering CBP’s history of fluctuating regulations? Starr is hopeful. “Truckers are good people,” he says, adding that CBP Director Steven Farquharson gave his personal guarantee that he would address their concerns. “We take people at their word, and Steven has been very good on his word to this point.”