Office of Operations Freight Management and Operations

Improving Border Crossing Planning and Decision-Making in Whatcom County, Washington, and British Columbia, Canada

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United States Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration

U.S. Department of Transportation
Federal Highway Administration
Office of Operations
1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE
Washington, DC 20590


Noteworthy Practice | April 2020


Key Accomplishments

  • Border wait time technologies deployment in the northwestern Washington State/southern BC region has improved transportation coordination and management across international borders.
  • Regional agencies are using information captured from the border wait time deployments to support improved inspections planning/staffing, analyses, reporting, and transportation systems operations/management.
  • Regional border wait time systems deployment has helped to redirect trucks to ports with shorter wait times, benefiting overall transportation mobility.

In 2000, the Washington Department of Transportation (WSDOT) deployed the region's first border wait time system, designed to address large vehicle wait time inconsistencies between the Peace Arch/Douglas and Pacific Highway Ports-of-Entry, situated less than one mile apart.

Whatcom County, located in northwestern Washington State, borders the Canadian province of British Columbia (BC). In 2018, there were over 1.1 million commercial vehicles crossing the border between Whatcom County and the Lower Mainland of BC. Freight movement is essential for economic develop and involves high levels of trade across international borders. However, when there are heavy truck and car volumes moving through these border crossings, there can be high congestion levels.

Whatcom Council of Governments (WCOG) is the metropolitan planning organization for Whatcom County. Along with State, regional, and Canadian provincial partners, WCOG identified a need to improve the border wait times collection and reporting to inform travelers' decision-making to ease congestion, and to support the region in more effective transportation planning and management. As these initiatives evolved, there have been ongoing opportunities to assess boarder congestion impacts on freight mobility.

Implementation of border wait time systems in Whatcom County and in BC demonstrate how data-sharing across borders can improve transportation coordination, planning, and decision-making, including for freight. WCOG plays a critical role helping to compile and share wait time information across the U.S./Canada border.

WCOG is the lead agency for the International Mobility and Trade Corridor Program (IMTC), a binational coalition of public agencies supporting border crossing systems in the region. WCOG is the lead agency for the International Mobility and Trade Corridor Program (IMTC), a binational coalition of public agencies supporting border crossing systems in the region. WCOG's members include seven cities in Whatcom County, the Port of Bellingham, and other regional entities. Although most border crossing technology implementation and management is under the IMTC purview, WCOG supports coordination and outreach to assist IMTC in implementing these initiatives.

a variable message sign over a rural highway with the message "APPROX BORDER DELAYS | SR 11 SUMAS X-ING 5 MIN | SR 13 ALDERGROVE 30 MIN"
Image courtesy of Whatcom Council of Governments

Implementation Approach

In 2000, WSDOT installed the region's first U.S.-Canada border wait time system on I-5 northbound lanes and WA State Route 543. This system used loop detector sensors to develop vehicle wait time estimates and display the estimates on variable message signs (VMS) located on public roadways near the ports. The system purpose was to help distribute passenger traffic across the two ports to maximize available capacity.

Later, the system was expanded to include a southbound system (funded jointly by the Province of British Columbia, Transport Canada, and Federal Highway Administration's (FHWA) Coordinated Border Infrastructure (CBI) funds), as well as all four regional ports-of-entry, and to capture commercial vehicle border wait times.

Currently, only passenger vehicle wait times are displayed on the roadway VMS; commercial wait time estimates are available from the Canadian Border Services Agency, British Columbia Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure (BCMOTI), and WSDOT for access by freight brokerages and dispatchers.

In 2005, WCOG began to develop a border wait time data archive to compile all data in a "one-stop-shop." WCOG deployed the first archive in 2007 and completed a revised version in 2012. The initial deployment and revisions were funded by Transport Canada ($355,000), with additional funding support from FHWA ($100,000); WSDOT ($200,000); and BCMOTI ($55,000). The archive provides a portal to assist stakeholders, including the public, in accessing border wait time data. Using the archive, WCOG produces reports for passenger and freight traffic for IMTC partner agencies and the public via the IMTC website. WCOG and its partners have also used the archive for trends analysis and performance measurement.

WCOG received FHWA and BCMOTI funding to update and expand the archive beginning in 2020. WCOG aims to incorporate more information on commercial vehicle traffic information into the archive to improve border wait time reporting accuracy.

There is an ongoing need to ensure that border wait time systems data helps address freight operations needs. For example, WCOG has found some apparent freight stakeholder limitations in using the information for dynamic freight routing. WCOG is actively working with freight industry partners through forums such as IMTC to improve how commercial vehicle operators can more effectively consume border wait time data.

Outcomes and Results

Deployment of the border wait time systems and data archive has improved regional transportation coordination, as well as infrastructure and operations planning and decision-making. For example, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) use border wait time data for inspection staffing analysis, reporting, and planning.

The archive also provides a measuring tool for infrastructure investments impact on average border wait times, including for freight operations. Using wait time data in conjunction with other data sets, WCOG has conducted simulation modeling to analyze potential border crossing operational or infrastructure changes.

Lessons Learned

Unique characteristics of freight movement present challenges and opportunities for border wait time systems deployment. For example, IMTC and WCOG are trying to understand better how border wait time data could inform dynamic freight routing through ports-of-entry.

Technology deployments require a clear traceability framework to show how deliverables achieve desired outcomes. WCOG developed a traceability matrix that incorporates a concise list of outcomes for all of its software deliverables, including the data archive. This matrix helped to ensure that the final product vision aligned with that of the developer's, decreasing the frequency of cost overruns and other challenges.

Fostering buy-in from multiple partners is critical to deploying border wait time systems. Highly tailored messaging shows the expected individual stakeholder benefits. Private sector freight stakeholders have needs, goals, and missions distinct from the public sector; public agencies need to understand these unique concerns and how technology deployments can effectively address those interests.

Local Contacts

Melissa Fanucci, AICP
Principal Planner
(360) 685-8385

Lina Halwani
Director of Planning and SCR Major Projects Lead
(604) 660-8795

Todd Carlson
Transportation Planning & Engineering Manager
(360) 757-5980

Sayuri Koyamatsu
Northwest Region TMC
(360) 705-7000

Chris Hoff
Transport Canada
Project Manager
(604) 666-7972

For more information, contact:

Tiffany Julien
Transportation Specialist