Office of Operations Freight Management and Operations

Border-Wide Assessment of Intelligent Transportation System (ITS) Technology—Current and Future Concepts

Final Report


The objective of this chapter is to describe the overall commercial and private vehicle border-crossing process and the stakeholders that participate in the process. This description helps identify the use of ITS and other technologies by the various stakeholders; these technologies are described in the following chapters of the report.

Border-Crossing Process at the U.S.-Mexico Border

The border-crossing process for passenger and commercial vehicles at the U.S.-Mexico border is complicated due to the number of stakeholders that participate in the process. The commercial vehicle crossing requires additional cargo inspection for trucks crossing from Mexico into the United States.

Northbound Commercial Vehicle Crossing Process

The original trucking provisions under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) regarding opening the U.S. border to Mexican trucks were designed to improve transportation efficiency by enabling more seamless cross-border trucking operations. Currently, Mexican tractors are restricted to circulation in a narrow commercial zone extending out to 25 miles from the border (or up to 75 miles in Arizona). Therefore, Mexican truck shipments into the United States are required to use a drayage or transfer tractor that picks up a trailer on the Mexican side of the border and then hauls it into the United States, where it is dropped off so a U.S. long-haul tractor can carry the trailer further into U.S. territory.

The typical northbound border-crossing process requires a shipper in Mexico to file shipment data with both Mexican and U.S. Federal agencies, prepare both paper and electronic forms, and use a drayage or transfer tractor to move the goods from Mexico to the United States. Once the shipment is at the border with the drayage or transfer tractor and an authorized driver, the process flows through three main potential physical inspection areas:

  • Mexican export lot,
  • U.S. Federal compound and
  • U.S. State safety inspection facility.

A description of the main activities that take place in the northbound border-crossing process is illustrated in Figure 2 and presented in the following sections.

Figure 2. Flowchart depicting the commercial vehicle border-crossing process from Mexico to the United States. The flowchart depicts travel from Mexico (Mexican export lot) to the United States (U.S. federal compound and state safety facility). Vehicles begin at a Mexican warehouse/yard offsite. They travel to the Mexican export lot where they undergo Mexican export documentation verification and cargo inspection selection. Some vehicles are chosen for Mexican export cargo inspection and then rejoin the flow of vehicles into the United States. Vehicles cross the border into the U.S. federal compound where they undergo Customs and Border Protection primary inspection (document inspection). Some vehicles are chosen for secondary inspection (VACIS, x-ray, Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, and others) and then rejoin the flow of vehicles into the state vehicle safety inspection facility. There, they undergo visual safety inspection. Some vehicles are chosen for detailed state truck safety inspection and then rejoin the flow of vehicles out of the facility and to a U.S. warehouse/yard offsite.
Source: (3)

Figure 2. Flowchart depicting the commercial vehicle border-crossing process from Mexico to the United States.
The Mexican Export Lot

A drayage driver with the required documentation proceeds into the Mexican Customs (Aduanas) compound. For audit and interdiction purposes, Mexican Customs conducts inspections consisting of a physical review of the cargo of randomly selected outbound freight prior to its export. Shipments that are not selected proceed to the exit gate cross the border and continue on to the U.S. POE.

There are several international crossings along the U.S.-Mexico border that are tolled. Tolls are collected in Mexico for northbound traffic and in the United States for southbound traffic. Toll collection is manual (cash) and electronic. All of the crossings along the Texas-Mexico border are bridges that cross the Rio Grande River, and most of them are tolled. Before crossing into the United States, commercial vehicles pay tolls and proceed to the U.S. Federal Compound.

The U.S. Federal Compound

At the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) primary inspection booth, the driver of the truck presents identification and shipment documentation to the processing agent. The CBP inspector at the primary inspection booth uses a computer terminal to crosscheck the basic information about the driver, vehicle, and cargo with information sent previously by the carrier via the CBP’s Automated Cargo Environment (ACE) electronic manifest (e-Manifest). The CBP inspector then makes a decision to refer the truck, driver, or cargo for a more detailed secondary inspection of any or all of these elements, or—alternatively—releases the truck to the exit gate.

Motor carriers or other eligible parties are currently required to file an electronic manifest (e-Manifest) with CBP’s Automated Commercial Environment (ACE) system for most international truck shipments prior to a truck entering the United States through a land port. E-Manifests are filed at least 30 minutes prior to arrival of Free and Secure Trade (FAST)-enrolled trucks and 60 minutes prior to the arrival of non-FAST trucks. Among other information, the e-Manifest data identifies the port where the truck intends to cross. The e-Manifest enables CBP to prescreen the operator, conveyance, equipment, and shipment information before the truck arrives at the border. This allows CBP to focus its efforts and inspections on high-risk commerce and minimize unnecessary delays for low-risk commerce.

A secondary inspection includes any inspection that the driver, cargo, or conveyance undergoes between the primary inspection and the exit gate of the U.S. Federal Compound. Personnel from CBP usually conduct these inspections, which can be done by physically inspecting the conveyance and the cargo or by using non-intrusive inspection equipment (such as x-rays).

Within the compound, other Federal agencies such as the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have personnel and facilities to perform other inspections when required. A vehicle safety inspection could be conducted either at the Federal Compound (by FMCSA) or at the State Safety Inspection Facility depending on practice.

The State Vehicle Safety Inspection Facility

For the majority of POEs on the southern border, the State Safety Inspection Facility is located adjacent to the Federal Compound. State police inspect conveyances to determine whether they are in compliance with U.S. safety standards and regulations. If their initial visual inspection finds any violation, they direct the truck to proceed to a more detailed inspection at a special facility.

After leaving the State Safety Inspection Facility, the driver typically drives to the freight forwarder or customs broker yard to drop off the trailer for later pickup by a long-haul tractor bound for the final destination.

Commercial Border-Crossing Security Programs

CBP’s FAST program is in operation at most of the major U.S. international land border crossings. Its objective is to offer expedited clearance to carriers that have demonstrated supply chain security and are enrolled in the Customs-Trade Partnership against Terrorism (C-TPAT). The FAST program allows U.S.-Canada and U.S.-Mexico partnering importers expedited release for qualifying commercial shipments.1

For a shipment to be considered a FAST shipment, it needs to comply with very specific regulations. The shipper in Mexico, the carrier that is transporting the cargo across the border, and the driver all have to be C-TPAT certified.

The time required for a typical Mexican export shipment to make the trip from the yard, distribution center or manufacturing plant in Mexico to the exit of the State Safety Inspection Facility for a particular POE depends on the number of secondary inspections required, the number of inspection booths in service, the traffic volume at that specific time of day, and for the shipment’s eligibility to be expedited via FAST.

Southbound Commercial Vehicle Crossing

The southbound commercial vehicle crossing process has only one Mexican Customs inspection station. The process in Mexico is a red light/green light decision in which a loaded commercial vehicle is randomly selected for a secondary inspection if it gets a red light. Empty vehicles cross with no need to stop at a Mexican Customs’ booth.

Recently, CBP has started to perform random manual inspections on the U.S. side of the border for commercial vehicles crossing into Mexico, aiming to identify illegal shipments of money and weapons. The U.S. POEs were not designed for southbound commercial vehicle inspection, and consequently this has created congestion.

Passenger Vehicle Crossing Process

On the Mexican side of the border, passenger vehicles are required to pay tolls at those crossings that have that requirement, usually POEs at international bridges. Drivers pay tolls either manually (i.e., in cash) or via Electronic Toll Collection (ETC) systems. Once passenger vehicles pay the toll, if one is required, they proceed to the U.S. Federal Compound.

At the U.S. Federal Compound, passenger vehicles have to go through primary and sometimes secondary inspections. At the primary inspection booths, CBP officers ask the individuals who want to enter the country to show proper documentation (i.e., proof of citizenship) and state the purpose of their visit to the United States. Additionally, during this stage of the process, a query on the Interagency Border Inspection System (IBIS) is executed to review the past records of violations that the traveler may have. If necessary, CBP officers direct the vehicle to secondary inspection.

At the primary inspection booth, Automatic License Plate Recognition (ALPR) scanners identify, and computers perform queries of, the vehicles against law enforcement databases that are continuously updated. A combination of electric gates, tire shredders, traffic control lights, fixed iron bollards, and pop-up pneumatic bollards ensure physical control of vehicles intending to cross.

At the secondary inspection station, a much more thorough investigation of the identity of those wanting to enter the United States as well as the purpose of their visit is performed. During this step, individuals may also have to pay duties upon their declared items. Upon completion, access to the United States is either granted or denied.

Passenger Vehicle Border-Crossing Security Programs

Similar to the FAST program for commercial vehicles, the Secure Electronic Network for Travelers Rapid Inspection (SENTRI) provides expedited CBP processing for pre-approved, low-risk travelers entering the United States at southern border POEs. Applicants must voluntarily undergo a thorough biographical background check against criminal, law enforcement, customs, immigration, and terrorist indices; a 10-fingerprint law enforcement check; and a personal interview with a CBP officer.

Once an applicant is approved for crossing the border under SENTRI, he or she is issued a document with radio frequency identification (RFID) that will identify his or her record and status in the CBP database upon arrival at the U.S. POE. A sticker decal is also issued to be affixed to the applicant’s car, personal truck, or motorcycle. SENTRI users have access to specific, dedicated primary lanes into the United States. SENTRI dedicated commuter lanes exist at the Otay Mesa, El Paso, San Ysidro, Calexico, Nogales, Hidalgo, Brownsville, Anzalduas, Laredo, and San Luis POEs on the U.S.-Mexico border.

When an approved international traveler approaches the border in the SENTRI lane, the system automatically identifies the vehicle and the identity of its occupant(s) by reading the file number on the RFID card. The file number triggers the participant’s data to be brought up on the CBP officer’s screen. The data are verified by the CBP officer, and the traveler is released or referred for additional inspection.

Participants in the program wait for much shorter times than those in regular lanes waiting to enter the United States. Critical information required in the inspection process is provided to the CBP officer in advance of the passenger’s arrival, therefore reducing the inspection time (4).

Technology at Land Ports of Entry

The use of technology to improve international land border-crossing operations has increased in recent years. As mentioned in this section, CBP is using technology to implement trusted-traveler programs such as FAST and SENTRI. FMCSA is currently identifying technologies to deploy a wireless roadside inspection program. State safety agencies are also implementing RFID-based technologies to streamline the inspection processes.

Coordination among stakeholders is an important element in which ITS could play an important role. The next sections of the report present a detailed assessment of current ITS applications at the border.

Technology for the SENTRI and NEXUS Programs

CBP’s trusted-traveler programs provide expedited travel for pre-approved, low-risk travelers through dedicated lanes and kiosks. The NEXUS program is used at the U.S.-Canada border, and the SENTRI program is operational at the U.S.-Mexico border.


The SENTRI program is a U.S. initiative that allows for faster border-crossing times from Mexico to the U.S. A description of how this program operates from the user’s standpoint is included in Chapter 2.

The cost for enrolling in the program is currently $122.25 and gives the member a 5-year membership to the SENTRI program (29). Tolls are paid separately. Not all SENTRI lanes are tolled and for those that are, tolls are paid by various forms as explained below. The technology used in the SENTRI program is very similar to the one used for tolling. It is based on a sticker transponder mounted on the left side of the windshield and read by an overhead antenna (Figure 3) and an RFID card that the driver waves in front of an antenna mounted on the side of the road (Figure 4). Each person in the vehicle needs to have a valid SENTRI RFID card. Transcore is the equipment manufacturer and system integrator for the SENTRI system.

Figure 3. Photograph showing overhead antenna used in the SENTRI program (4). This photograph shows a mast arm with an overhead antenna bolted to it.
Figure 3. Photograph showing overhead antenna used in the SENTRI program (4).
Figure 4. Photograph showing RFID card reader used in the SENTRI program (4). This photograph shows a radio-frequency identification card reader attached to a pole that also has a signal light. A sign below the reader says “Point SENTRI Card Here.”
Figure 4. Photograph showing RFID card reader used in the SENTRI program (4).

Table 1 lists the border crossings with SENTRI systems. The table is divided into two groups: tolled and non-tolled border crossings. It is important to make a distinction because the non-tolled border crossings are relatively simple on the Mexican side, while the tolled border crossings require special handling by the Mexican operators and users.

When crossing from Mexico into the United States using tolled SENTRI lanes, users need to enroll in the Linea Express program. The Linea Express program was created to allow SENTRI users to use dedicated lanes as they enter the border crossing from the Mexican side and for toll payment. Enrollment in the Linea Express program can only be obtained after the user has been granted SENTRI status. In addition, at CAPUFE-operated bridges users have to pay an annual toll fee that allows them unlimited crossing privileges in the northbound direction. The annual fee varies by bridge crossing, but it is currently approximately USD$320 (30). Bridge crossings operated by others offer other forms of toll payments, such as tickets. Users still need to pay the regular toll to the U.S. bridge operator each time they cross in the southbound direction.

Table 1. SENTRI border crossings.
Border Crossing U.S. City U.S. State Tolled
Veterans International Bridge Brownsville TX Yes
McAllen-Hidalgo-Reynosa Bridge Hidalgo TX Yes
Anzalduas International Bridge Mission TX Yes
Juarez-Lincoln Bridge Laredo TX Yes
Ysleta-Zaragoza Bridge El Paso TX Yes
Good Neighbor Bridge (SB only, NB DCL) Stanton ELP TX Yes
Paso del Norte Bridge (Pedestrian only) ELP TX Yes
Nogales DeConcini Nogales AZ No
San Luis San Luis AZ No
Calexico East Calexico CA No
Calexico West Calexico CA No
Otay Mesa (Passenger) Otay Mesa CA No
San Ysidro San Diego CA No

In terms of technology, theLinea Express program’s technology is very similar to the technology used for tolling. CAPUFE issues a transponder valid only on the border crossings that it operates to grant access to the dedicated Linea Express lanes. CAPUFE operates most of the border crossings with Linea Express lanes. Promofront, which is the concessionaire on the Ysleta-Zaragoza Bridge, has two payment options: prepaid tickets that allows users to pay the toll per use, and annual membership that provides unlimited border crossings for 1 year and includes a transponder (31). Neither of these transponders is compatible with the SENTRI-provided transponder. Unlike the SENTRI membership that can be used in any border crossing along the U.S.-Mexico border, the Linea Express program rules, membership, and fees vary by bridge/crossing operator. In some cases, the user needs to obtain separate memberships if he or she wishes to use the Linea Express; this is true in El Paso at the Good Neighbor Stanton Bridge and the Ysleta-Zaragoza Bridge, although these border crossings are only 13 miles apart. In this case, the user, assuming he or she selects the annual membership with transponder at the Ysleta-Zaragoza Bridge, may end up having three different transponders (32).


For the U.S.-Canada border, a similar trusted-traveler program was established in 2002 as part of the Shared Border Accord. NEXUS is a joint program with the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) that allows prescreened, approved travelers to get faster processing. Users enrolling in this program receive a NEXUS card. NEXUS cards are Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative- (WHTI-) compliant documents for land and sea travel, as well as air travel when traveling to and from airports using the NEXUS program, and provide expedited travel via land, air, or sea to approved members between the U.S.-Canada border. A NEXUS card also fulfills the travel document requirements of the WHTI that require a passport or other secure travel documents by all U.S. and Canadian citizens (33) (34).

Sixteen U.S.-Canada border crossings currently offer dedicated passenger vehicle lanes for NEXUS members (35). The application processing fee for NEXUS membership is currently $50 per applicant. The membership is valid for 5 years.

The two main differences between the NEXUS and SENTRI programs are that (a) in the SENTRI program, the vehicle also needs to be enrolled; and (b) the NEXUS card is valid for entering Canada and the U.S., while the SENTRI membership provides benefits only when traveling from Mexico to the U.S.

The technology used in the NEXUS program is RFID-based. The NEXUS card is an RFID card similar to a credit card in size. Intermec is the equipment provider for the NEXUS program. Once in the lane, the user holds the card up to an RFID reader positioned well in front of the inspection booth. The reader flashes the participant’s photo and information onto a computer screen inside the booth. The inspector verifies that the photo on the screen matches the vehicle occupant and, if all checks out, authorizes the car to proceed (36).

Although the NEXUS card is not generally used for toll payment at the border crossings, at least one creative authority has found a way to tie the NEXUS card to its toll collection system. The Whirlpool Rapids bridge operated by the Niagara Falls Bridge Commission (NFBC) offers the NEXUS/Toll program that allows NEXUS users to open a prepaid toll account and tie their NEXUS card number to it. Then when the user presents his or her NEXUS card to the NEXUS reader located in front of the entrance gate at the Whirlpool Bridge, the card is checked for security clearance and a toll charge is deducted from the user’s account (37).

Ready Lane

Ready Lane is a dedicated primary vehicle lane for travelers entering the United States at land border crossings. Travelers who obtain and travel with a WHTI-compliant, RFID-enabled travel document receive the benefits of utilizing a Ready Lane to expedite the inspection process while crossing the border. The U.S. passport card, the SENTRI card, the NEXUS card, the FAST card, the new enhanced permanent resident “green card,” and the new border-crossing card are all RFID-enabled documents.

RFID technology allows information contained in a wireless “tag” to be read from a distance, enabling officers to more quickly, reliably, and accurately process travelers. The driver stops at the beginning of the lane and makes sure each passenger has his or her card out. Then when it is the driver’s turn, he or she drives slowly through the lane, holds all cards up on the driver’s side of the vehicle, and proceeds to stop at the officer’s booth (38) (39).

Ready Lanes are operational at the following selected POEs on the U.S.-Canada and U.S.-Mexico borders:

  • Blaine, WA—Peace Arch.
  • Del Rio, TX.
  • Detroit, MI—Ambassador Bridge.
  • El Paso, TX—Ysleta-Zaragoza Bridge.
  • Nogales, AZ—DeConcini Crossing.
  • Progresso, TX—Donna-Rio Bravo International Bridge.
  • Otay Mesa, CA.

There are plans to open additional Ready Lanes in the near future.

Commercial Vehicle Inspection Technologies

FMCSA is currently investigating freight electronic screening (e-Screening) via wireless inspection that enables more efficient operations at border crossings under the Motor Carrier Efficiency Study (MCES) program. The International Border Crossing Electronic Screening (IBC e-Screening) System is a planned alert-based system. The IBC e-Screening intends to expedite the safe and legal flow of freight and passengers across northern and southern U.S. borders while targeting unsafe operations. It will accomplish this by wirelessly obtaining commercial vehicle information and verifying compliance with relevant requirements during the border-crossing process.

The IBC e-Screening concept leverages the FMCSA’s investment in the FMCSA/CBP Query Central–Automated Commercial Environment/International Trade Data System (QC–ACE/ITDS) interface to provide an automated, data-driven approach to selection of vehicles for inspection at the northern and southern borders. This approach enables uniform and consistent application of policies and procedures related to safety and compliance assurance of cross-border commercial traffic.

The goal of the FMCSA project is to test technologies at selected international land border crossings to reduce the potential for large truck crashes by designing the IBC e-Screening system such that it will:

  • Electronically identify the carrier, truck, trailer, and driver associated with commercial truck trips entering the United States at land POEs, using RFID transponders already on the vast majority of trucks entering the United States from Mexico and Canada.
  • Electronically screen each component of that trip for factors of interest to State and FMCSA inspectors, providing for full safety and compliance verification of carriers, trucks, trailers, and drivers each time they enter the United States.
  • Display the screening results to State and FMCSA enforcement officers and inspectors to assist them in making more informed inspection selection decisions in fixed and mobile operations and in mainline and ramp settings, significantly increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of their operations.
  • Enable data monitoring/reporting by States and FMCSA to better position each organization to fulfill its mission.

1 See U.S. Customs and Border Protection, FAST: Free and Secure Trade Program, at

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