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north american trade

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland takes a tour of trucking company Bison Transport’s headquarters in Winnipeg last month.

A couple of weeks ago, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland took a tour of trucking company Bison Transport’s headquarters in Winnipeg. With media cameras flashing and yellow safety vest donned, she checked out a truck driving simulator and sat down with a few drivers to get their take on the reality of hauling freight in North America and across country borders.

The visit came just weeks after Ms. Freeland’s Canadian negotiation team finished months of intense talks with the United States and Mexico to deliver a trade deal to replace the nearly 25-year-old North American free-trade agreement. The rejigged framework pact, called the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), prompted President Donald Trump to quickly jump on Twitter the next day to herald it as a “wonderful new trade deal.”

But will it be so wonderful for the Canadian trucking industry and what will the impact be?

It’s too early to tell, says Lak Shoan, director of policy and industry awareness programs at the Canadian Trucking Alliance in Toronto. The nitty-gritty language of the USMCA is still coming together and won’t be expected to be completed until the end of this month. And the three countries have yet to ratify the deal.

“We’re still trying to unravel exactly how this is going to impact everyone in the longer term,” he says, mentioning that trucking leaders are working with government negotiators to figure out how some of the finer details of the deal will be ironed out. After all, the deal “really came together quite quickly there at the end so it will probably be a few more months and phone calls before we fully understand how this will impact us at a micro and a macro level.”

Getting the deal’s language right is vital for Canada’s logistics industry, as more than US$544-billion in freight was moved between the three North American countries in 2016 – two-thirds of it rumbling down the roads in trucks. The Ambassador Bridge alone, which links Windsor, Ont., and Detroit, and is considered the busiest trade crossing between Canada and the United States, sees about 7,000 trucks traverse it each day.

Mr. Shoan says he hopes some border processing improvements that could be embedded in the deal might help to mitigate the growing driver shortage the industry is facing. No one likes sitting in traffic at the border, but for drivers, time is money.

“Drivers get frustrated when they’re not moving,” he explains.

Especially now. As of 2017, all Canadian trucks entering the United States must use electronic logging devices that keep track of time on the road down to the minute. (Trucks in Canada will be required to use them by the end of 2019, too, Mr. Lak says.) Under Canadian regulations, drivers aren’t allowed to be behind the wheel and driving for more than 13 hours a day in this country. In the United States, that number drops to 11 hours. The stipulations are meant to fight driver fatigue and deter some time-pressed drivers from driving longer than is safe.

But major delays at border crossings can mean quickly running out of drivable hours and force drivers to park their trucks. For those who are paid by the hour or kilometre, that lost time means lost money – and one more hurdle for companies needing to recruit and retain drivers.

While governments have been coming up with ways to move goods across borders faster by creating electronic data tracking systems and creating dedicated lanes for commercial vehicles, trucking companies are also trying to keep things moving on their end without taxing much-needed drivers unnecessarily.

Garth Pitzel, director of safety and driver development at Bison, says the company now has a dedicated team of about 20 employees who work on customs issues to ease the burden. And instead of phoning brokers to grease the wheels as happened in the past, updates arrive in the office electronically.

“We have invested an awful lot of computer techie time to make sure that we have these updates flowing through to our driver to make it seamless,” says Mr. Pitzel, who explains that a driver then gets a notification when a shipment has cleared and he or she can then cross the border quickly.

There is also the FAST (Free and Secure Trade) card system, a Nexus-like program for truck drivers that expedites crossings. The driver passes the FAST card to the officer, it’s scanned and all the information on the product, equipment and driver appears. Today, more trucking companies are investing in FAST cards, especially for drivers willing to do numerous runs into the United States, not always an easy sell.

But the FAST system isn’t perfect.

“The unfortunate part is we don’t have enough of those fast lanes and it’s not being done at every border crossing across the network,” Mr. Pitzel says. That means drivers, even those holding cards, can get stuck in long lines of traffic before they ever hit those coveted designated lanes.

Fortunately, at least for the Windsor and Detroit crossing, changing is coming. The new Gordie Howe International Bridge will be opening in 2024 and will be making commercial traffic a priority. The six-lane, 2.5-km bridge – which could be expanded to eight lanes – will give vehicles a seamless highway-to-bridge link. No more slow and congested municipal roads. What’s more, there will be more dedicated lanes for trucks, as well as technology to keep shipments moving.

Ultimately, no matter how many infrastructure and technology changes go live as the new North American trade deal rolls out in the coming years, Mr. Pitzel says the real challenge for the trucking industry will lie in its flexibility to deal with how customers are affected, whether they’re in dairy, automotive or other goods.

“There are going to be industries that will create extra volumes and others that might reduce volumes or areas where their products go,” he says. “We, as an industry, have to be able to react to that.”