Commercial Vehicle Travel
Time and Delay at U.S. Border Crossings
One of the Federal Highway Administration's (FHWA's) strategic goals
is to help improve the economic efficiency of the U.S. transportation
system and, thereby, enhance the nation's position in the global economy.
One way to address this need is to reduce the hours of delay for commercial
motor vehicles passing through the northern and southern ports-of-entry
with Canada and Mexico. The border crossing process is one of the few
elements in logistical planning and execution that today is almost completely
beyond the control of both motor carriers and shippers. Predicting with
certainty the time needed to transit a border crossing is difficult.
In 2001, FHWA's Office of Freight Management and Operations, supported
by Battelle and the Texas Transportation Institute (TTI), undertook
an on-site review of seven ports-of-entry that handle over 60 percent
of U.S. truck trade among the three NAFTA nations. Linked with research
now under way to simulate border-crossing activity using a model called
"Border Wizard," these site reviews will enable FHWA to make informed
recommendations about crossing improvements. The results also will help
the agency to engage with other federal, state, and local jurisdictions
in constructive dialogue about how, together, all can improve the performance,
security, and mobility of commerce at these important international
The seven ports-of-entry reviewed in 2001 were:
- Otay Mesa, California
- El Paso, Texas
- Laredo, Texas (Bridge 4, a relatively new truck-only crossing, was
the site observed at Laredo)
- Blaine, Washington
- the Ambassador Bridge (Detroit), Michigan
- Blue Water Bridge (Port Huron), Michigan
- Peace Bridge (Buffalo), New York
The measurement chosen to monitor commercial vehicle activity on-site
was "travel delay per truck trip." This documents the time taken by
the individual commercial vehicle from the initial queuing point in
the exporting country, through the exporting country's final checkpoint,
and up to and through the first inspection point in the importing country.
Travel in both directions was assessed (i.e., truck travel into and
out of the United States).
The on-site reviews found:
- The time needed for processing commercial vehicles entering the
United States (inbound clearances) to be significantly longer than
that for departing (outbound clearances) at almost every location.
Anyone familiar with border activity would not find this surprising.
The controlled substance and illegal immigration inspections performed
by U.S. inspection agencies on the southern border required reviews
of incoming cargoes and their operators that led to unavoidable time
- The actual extent of delays encountered in both directions, and
the reasons for them, however, tended to vary by individual port-of-entry.
There was no single trend across sites beyond the noted tendencies:
1) inbound clearances take longer than outbound, and 2) southern border
delay times exceed northern border delay times.
- The site-specific findings may not readily lend themselves to a
"one size fits all" corrective action initiative. Nevertheless, procedural
changes, application of advanced technologies, and facility design
modifications at selected ports-of-entry–some already under
way–offer the possibility of greater productivity in the processing
of commercial vehicles and reduced travel delay.
- Increased traffic volume did not necessarily correlate with significantly
increased delay. Crossings varied greatly in their ability to handle
volume shifts of traffic over the business day.
- In total, for all seven ports-of-entry, the average inbound travel
time was 26.8 minutes, while the average outbound travel time was
14.2 minutes. For the four northern ports in the survey, the average
inbound travel time was 24.1 minutes; the average outbound, 12.6 minutes.
For the three southern ports, the average inbound travel time was
33.8 minutes; the average outbound, 17.2 minutes.
- Unfortunately, average travel time does not tell the whole story,
as at several crossings, many trucks took significantly longer to
transit the seven ports-of-entry. Hence, a 95th percentile time measurement
also was calculated, providing information about the time that it
took 95 percent of the surveyed trucks to travel the study distance.
A comparison of average travel time with the 95th percentile time
finds that a number of truck trips could in fact take far longer than
the average. For example, while average travel time for all seven
inbound crossings was 26.8 minutes, the 95th percentile time for these
was over 70 minutes.
- Not surprisingly, the number of inspection and processing booths
open at each port-of-entry at any given time had a significant influence
on the variability of travel time and delay. There was a definite
relationship between the number of booths open, the travel demand,
and the travel time through the crossing. Decisions on how many to
open at any given time are apparently not made purely with mobility
or crossing times in mind and are not always made by the transportation
- Before September 11, 2001, U.S.-Canadian ports-of-entry generally
processed inbound trucks with less delay, and with less variability,
than did U.S.-Mexican ports-of-entry. Southern crossings generally
handle more traffic, but with generally more variability across the
day in the travel times required for crossing. (The exception to this
pattern was the Blue Water Bridge port-of-entry at Port Huron, Michigan).
As noted, concerns about drug traffic and illegal immigration apparently
contribute to extended inspection times at the southern border. However,
other influences on travel time and delay are less self- evident and
may need further consideration. Procedures or policies that reduce
time at the northern ports-of-entry might be exportable to the southern
- A study on urban mobility, performed for FHWA by TTI, indicated
that delay times along urban roadways are more predictable and not
as volatile in their swings across the sample day as those witnessed
at the seven ports-of-entry in 2001. This confirms the earlier statement
that international border crossings offer a considerable challenge
for those parties planning commercial cargo movement departures, transit
times, and arrivals than do most other links in the national transportation
The full report and individual site reports are available on the Web
site noted below under the heading "Freight Productivity Performance
For More Information, Please Contact
Robert E.L. Davis
Office of Freight Management and Operations
Federal Highway Administration
Comparison of Outboundand Inbound Times (Minutes)
||95th Percentile Time1
| All Outbound Crossings
| All Inbound Crossings
| All Northern Outbound Crossings
| All Northern Inbound Crossings
|All Southern Outbound Crossings
|All Southern Inbound Crossings
|Ambassador Bridge Outbound
|Ambassador Bridge Inbound
|Blue Water Bridge Outbound
|Blue Water Bridge Inbound
|Peace Bridge Outbound
|Peace Bridge Inbound
|El Paso Outbound
|El Paso Inbound
|Otay Mesa Outbound
|Otay Mesa Inbound
Key: NA = not available.
1Baseline time: Time needed to travel
through the port-of-entry at low-volume conditions; the lowest hourly
travel time in that direction for each day surveyed. This value represents
"no delay" travel time.
2Average time: Time (in minutes)
needed to travel the study distance (between the starting point in the
exporting country and the initial inspection station in the importing
395th percentile time: Time
within which 95 percent of the trucks surveyed traveled the study distance.