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Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 77 · No. 6 > Neighbors Helping Neighbors

May/June 2014
Vol. 77 · No. 6

Publication Number: FHWA-HRT-14-004

Neighbors Helping Neighbors

by Chris Dingman

Border crossings are the focus of two key FHWA initiatives to assist the U.S.-Canadian joint effort to improve security while expediting trade.

Shown is the bridge that connects the international border crossing between Baudette, MN, and Rainy River, ON. Helping Minnesota obtain information on international crossings is an example of a project that FHWA undertook to support the agency’s contribution to the U.S.-Canadian joint initiative, Beyond the Border.
Shown is the bridge that connects the international border crossing between Baudette, MN, and Rainy River, ON. Helping Minnesota obtain information on international crossings is an example of a project that FHWA undertook to support the agency’s contribution to the U.S.-Canadian joint initiative, Beyond the Border.

The level of transportation and trade between the United States and Canada is robust. In 2012, more than $632 billion worth of freight crossed the border by all modes. Breaking down that number, that’s an average of approximately $1.2 million worth of freight per minute.

By dollar value, the United States and Canada continue to be each other’s largest trading partner. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 16.4 percent of all U.S. international trade in 2013 took place with Canada. In fact, the United States exported more goods that year to Canada than to China, Germany, Japan, and the United Kingdom combined. Moreover, by dollar value, 34 U.S. States export more goods to Canada than to any other Nation.

Recent actions by top officials from Canada and the United States reaffirm the importance of the relationship between the two neighbors. On February 4, 2011, President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced a United States-Canada joint declaration, “Beyond the Border: A Shared Vision for Perimeter Security and Economic Competitiveness.” The subsequent Beyond the Border Action Plan, available electronically, articulates an approach to security “in which both countries work together to address threats within, at, and away from [the] borders, while expediting lawful trade and travel.” (See www.dhs.gov/beyond-border-action-plan.)

The Beyond the Border Action Plan, which the U.S. Department of Homeland Security released on December 7, 2011, identifies and describes a number of specific actions designed to advance the goals of the Beyond the Border initiative. Transportation is the main focus of a number of those strategies.

To support the interconnectedness of the United States with its neighbor to the north, Beyond the Border has focused on two key transportation initiatives led by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). The projects are driven by the need to innovate so that goods and people can continue to move between the two countries securely and efficiently.

The first initiative is a border wait time project that involves technological solutions and consensus building. The other initiative provides technical know-how and assistance, information exchange and facilitation, and peer support, offered as needed, to project partners such as the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT).

Border Wait Time: Project Parameters

Agencies that operate at or near the U.S.-Canadian border share a common goal of facilitating the legitimate flow of travelers and trade. In recent years, wait times and delays have been identified as an impediment to the free flow across the border. In general, information on wait times is collected using disparate methods that are mainly nonautomated. In many cases that information is not accurate or timely enough to help passenger or commercial vehicles crossing the border, or border agencies make effective decisions.

Vehicles line up to enter Canada at the Peace Bridge inspection booth in Buffalo, NY. The Peace Bridge was one of the sites studied during the border wait time pilot and was another example of FHWA working with partners and stakeholders to support the Beyond the Border initiative.
Vehicles line up to enter Canada at the Peace Bridge inspection booth in Buffalo, NY. The Peace Bridge was one of the sites studied during the border wait time pilot and was another example of FHWA working with partners and stakeholders to support the Beyond the Border initiative.

To address this issue, FHWA, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Transport Canada, and Canada Border Services Agency agreed through a 2010 memorandum of cooperation to identify opportunities for working together on specific projects and activities that foster the use of technology to measure border wait times. The agencies, referred to collectively as the Border Wait Time Working Group, have been implementing solutions with the ultimate goal of using a data-driven approach that will improve border and transportation operations.

To date, the working group’s most significant product is the Effort to Test, Evaluate and Deploy Technologies to Automate the Measurement of Real-Time Border Wait Times at United States - Canada Land Border Crossings (FHWA-HOP-11-025). The border wait time project, which is best categorized as a research initiative, began in 2011. Its objective was to investigate, test, evaluate, and deploy an automated, technology-based solution for measuring wait times at two crossing locations along the U.S.-Canadian land border.

The purpose of the border wait solution is to provide current information to drivers planning to cross the border and to the owner agencies that operate the border crossing stations. Current, accurate wait time information helps drivers make informed decisions regarding travel routes and times, and whether they will travel at all. Wait time information helps owner agencies operate more efficiently through better informed staffing and improved designating of lanes for commercial and private vehicles.

This effort involved a variety of U.S. and Canadian government stakeholders that comprised the Border Wait Time Working Group. In addition to the agencies mentioned earlier, the program also involved bridge authorities and other crossing operators: Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority, Niagara Falls Bridge Commission, Niagara International Transportation Technology Coalition, and the Whatcom Council of Governments.

Still other transportation agencies in both countries also played important roles in the project. On the U.S. side, the New York State Department of Transportation and the New York State Thruway Authority provided technical support and managed access to the roadway rights-of-way necessary to install and maintain measuring devices. The transportation agencies also managed the permitting process for placing the devices on existing infrastructure. In Canada, the Ontario Ministry of Transportation performed similar roles.

The project was divided into two phases. During phase I, the project team selected candidate technologies and tested them at two border crossings: the Peace Bridge in the Niagara region and at the Pacific Highway crossing in the Pacific Northwest. During that initial phase, the project team tested four technological solutions: microwave radar, Bluetooth wireless, vehicle waveform identification, and GPS/smartphone.

Based on the phase I results, project stakeholders elected to implement the Bluetooth solution during phase II, testing it again at the Peace Bridge and at the Lewiston Queenston Bridge, which is also in the Niagara region. Bluetooth is a wireless technology standard for exchanging data over short distances via radio to and from both fixed detectors and mobile devices in vehicles. Deployment of the Bluetooth technology began in October–November 2011 and concluded in January–February 2013.

To be considered successful, the border wait time system had to meet several requirements. The system had to measure wait times 100 percent automatically, without any human intervention. The system also had to generate wait times representative of what the traveling public was actually experiencing, do so reliably, and operate with a system uptime of at least 99 percent. In addition, the system had to be secure from unauthorized access. It had to generate wait time information in standard formats and make the information easily accessible to system users. Finally, it could not interfere with border operations, either when the system was running or during system downtime.

The Bluetooth-based border wait time detection system chosen for the phase II deployment calculates wait times based on the movement of Bluetooth-equipped vehicles through the approach routes to the primary inspection booths. The system logs the unique media access control technology that identifies Bluetooth devices on vehicles at points upstream and at another point close to the border portal. Each border approach has one or more upstream detectors and a final sensor for each individual type of vehicle, including cars, trucks, and NEXUS lane members (prescreened travelers who receive expedited processing).

Even though media access control addresses are not personally identifiable information, the project team encrypted the logged addresses to ensure privacy. The border wait time system then applied a statistical algorithm to the elapsed times for traversals between the Bluetooth readers to derive representative wait times for border crossings.

The project team placed the upstream detectors so as to gather as much data as possible. The team members mounted detectors on existing infrastructure (such as light poles and gantries) and on top of equipment cabinets, technical shelters, and plaza support structures. A mix of local electricity sources and small solar panels powered the detectors.

The detector stations reported the collected data via cellular modems to a cloud-based server. Once per minute, the detectors would upload a packet of data containing the logged media access control addresses and time stamps. The border wait time server then would match the addresses from the detectors to calculate travel times, remove statistical outliers, run an algorithm to calculate the border wait times by vehicle type, and make the data available to the project stakeholders in an agreed-upon XML format. The stakeholders for the border wait time project then broadcast this information to vehicle drivers via Web sites and mobile applications.

The border wait time system produced three key data points. “Actual wait time” was the current travel time from the portal to the upstream end of the queue. “Current wait time” was the travel time for drivers once they joined the upstream end of the queue. “Predicted wait time” was the statistically smoothed historical travel time.

Border Wait Time: Operations

The project team investigated three organizational models for ongoing operations and presented them to stakeholder agencies and operating organizations. The three models were subscription, service contract, and replication.

Vehicles line up at the border crossing at Pacific Highway, WA, also one of the sites included in the border wait time pilot study.
Vehicles line up at the border crossing at Pacific Highway, WA, also one of the sites included in the border wait time pilot study.

Under the subscription model, the solution/system provider would assume all operational and maintenance responsibilities and ownership of all field devices, while reserving the right to distribute the data produced by the border wait time system. This provider would recover the costs by assessing fees for subscriptions to the data feed from the border wait time system. Subscribers would include government agencies, media outlets that report on traffic, and the public. This model would be easy to implement and would present a relatively low risk of hardware failure or obsolescence to the owner agencies. The subscription model would, however, offer the owner agencies less control of the system data, future enhancements, and system costs.

Under the service contract model, the solution provider (for the pilot test, this was an independent consultant firm) again would assume all operational and maintenance responsibilities but would recover the costs by entering into service contracts with one or more public agencies. Those agencies would assume ownership of all field devices, while the solution provider would be responsible for operations and maintenance support for those devices under the terms of the contract. The contracting agencies would own the data feed and would be free to distribute the data at their own discretion. The service contract model would also be easy to implement and would present relatively low risk of hardware failure or obsolescence to the owner agencies. Similar to the subscription model, the service model also would offer the owner agencies less control of the system data, future enhancements, and system costs.

Under the replication model, one or more of the public agencies involved in the project would assume ownership, operations, and maintenance responsibilities for the border wait time system. The field hardware currently in place would become the possession of this agency or agencies. The system owner(s) (such as a bridge authority or consortium) would provide hardware to host the processing component of the system, equipped with the programming logic necessary to conduct the wait time calculations and make the output available for distribution. This logic could be purchased or licensed from the service/solution provider under a separate procurement, or it could be developed inhouse. The replication model would require more effort, time, and capital investment to implement and would present a moderate risk of hardware failure and system obsolescence. The replication model would give the owner agency greater control of system data, more influence over future enhancements, and greater control of long-term costs.

These vehicles are waiting at Douglas, BC, to cross into the United States at Blaine, WA. This site was eventually eliminated because trucks do not cross there.
These vehicles are waiting at Douglas, BC, to cross into the United States at Blaine, WA. This site was eventually eliminated because trucks do not cross there.

The researchers conducted the study using the service contract model. Since the completion of the project, the bridge operators are continuing to operate under the same model.

Border Wait Time: Project Results

Since going live in November 2011, the system has operated virtually nonstop. The pilot officially ended in 2013, but operation of the system continues. Infrequent, brief disruptions of wait time reports occurred due to detector component failures, dropouts in cellular communication with detectors, areawide power failures, and coding mismatches between the border wait time system and users’ systems. Disruptions notwithstanding, the system achieved 99.8 percent uptime from November 2011 to the end of the pilot and continues today.

During the course of the project, facility reconfigurations and construction, operational processes including rerouting vehicle types due to peak times such as holidays, and feedback on wait time accuracy from stakeholders resulted in additional reconfiguring, adding readers, and modifying software to improve the wait time accuracy. In addition, the project team upgraded field components to improve durability and overall reliability.

System accuracy was a key requirement for project success. In this context, “accuracy” was the extent to which a given measurement agreed with the verifiable true measurement. In this case the “true measurement” was visual observation of vehicles moving through the queue, referred to as “ground-truth” validation.

The project team conducted three rounds of ground-truth validation: March 2012, July 2012, and March 2013. From these validation sessions, the project team arrived at three findings:

  • System accuracy degraded as wait times increased or as wait times changed rapidly due to the lag during traversals between detectors.

  • During periods of long wait times, system accuracy might degrade for particular vehicle types. For example, the wait times for commercial vehicles became less accurate when personal vehicles were temporarily routed through lanes usually designated as truck lanes, thus skewing truck wait times.

  • Outside factors affected system accuracy. Travelers stopping at duty-free shops, especially when wait times were long, could degrade system accuracy.

During the data validation sessions, the project team identified anomalies between ground-truth and system-measured traversal time data points at any given time--up to 45 minutes during some intervals. The variability in travel times made it more difficult to estimate and validate the system-generated wait times. The variability also created a situation in which the published wait time might be statistically correct but not representative of the wait time experienced by many of the travelers.

To address this issue, the project team deployed additional detectors to reduce the distances and traversal times between detectors. This deployment decreased the system lag and resulted in more accurate wait times for longer queues and periods of rapidly changing wait times. The additional detectors also helped to classify vehicle types more accurately and to identify outliers.

In addition, the project team modified the software to permit the calculation of wait times, even if a detector fails, by basing estimation on data from detectors upstream and downstream from the failed unit.

Border Wait Time: Lessons Learned

Phase II officially ended on September 30, 2013, but continues with the operators--the Niagara Falls Bridge Commission and Peace Bridge--covering the operating and maintenance costs of the border wait time system.

The project resulted in both technical and organizational lessons learned. For one thing, future implementers should be flexible when designing new installations. Each border crossing has a unique geometry, differing vehicle configurations, customized layouts for duty-free facilities, and specific combinations of priority systems for Free and Secure Trade (FAST) trucks, NEXUS lanes, and Ready lanes. The FAST program offers expedited processing for importers, carriers, and drivers who have demonstrated compliance with all security legislation and regulations. NEXUS lanes are those designated to expedite clearance for preapproved travelers who cross the border frequently. Ready lanes are expedited lanes for travelers with cards that can be read electronically.

Future implementers should incorporate site visits into the design process to ensure that the selected detectors are suitable for mounting, traffic patterns are fully understood, the info and infrastructure will properly support the design, and the system will not interfere with existing operations. Future implementers also should plan a period of system testing and tuning to optimize performance and allow relocation or adjustment of field components and software modifications to account for site-specific anomalies.

In situations where stakeholder organizations will perform activities outside of their normal operations, challenges will arise as individuals and organizations engage in new activities. Upfront consultation with stakeholders is key. For future deployments focusing on a long-term solution, the stakeholders need to agree at the outset on their roles and responsibilities. Generically speaking, these negotiations should address two categories of responsibilities. The first category is commitments to fund and manage any necessary procurement actions. The second is agreements regarding systems-related issues such as the type of procurement, the nature of arrangements for system operation and maintenance, ownership of system components, and plans for power and communications.

During the pilot project, the system performance requirements were invaluable. As a result, the procurement process was relatively straightforward and simple. The system developers received clear expectations and, as a result, problems were avoided with all vendors. All stakeholders--including the system developer--will benefit from a formalized methodology to assess system accuracy. If a provider is to comply with contractual requirements related to accuracy, and compensation is dependent upon meeting those requirements, then a final, verifiable method must be in place.

The nature of the contract to be executed needs to be decided in advance. This means that decisions need to be reached at a high level regarding whether a provider will develop and turn over a turnkey solution or will be asked to provide a service where wait time information is delivered in exchange for a subscription or service fee.

This vehicle is crossing into Canada at the Peace Bridge in Buffalo, NY. This site was also part of the pilot study.
This vehicle is crossing into Canada at the Peace Bridge in Buffalo, NY. This site was also part of the pilot study.

According to Crystal Jones, team lead for freight program delivery with the FHWA Office of Freight Management and Operations, the key takeaways resulting from the project are the following:

  • Local stakeholders should be involved early in the process.

  • The end state should be envisioned in terms of who will own and operate the system and how it will be funded.

  • The nature of border operations differs from other transportation situations, such as freeway operations, so that analysis and interpretation of the data could be very different from traditional models.

Minnesota: Example Of FHWA Assistance

In addition to the border wait time project, another way in which FHWA makes a positive impact at the Canadian border is through the sharing of technical assistance with project partners and stakeholders. In June 2012, members of the FHWA border staff and FHWA Minnesota Division worked with MnDOT staff to convene a peer exchange workshop in Oakdale, MN. The 1-day technical session provided attendees with an overview of an international border project, specifically, development of a bridge crossing from Baudette, MN, to Rainy River, ON.

Assistant Division Administrator David Scott of the FHWA Minnesota Division discusses project specifics with other participants at an August 2013 stakeholder meeting for the Baudette/Rainy River bridge.
Assistant Division Administrator David Scott of the FHWA Minnesota Division discusses project specifics with other participants at an August 2013 stakeholder meeting for the Baudette/Rainy River bridge.

The existing structure is nearing the end of its design life, and decisions need to be made about how the State of Minnesota and the Province of Ontario want to move forward. Minnesota had not constructed an international border bridge in a number of years and lacked information on the additional requirements and binational coordination that a project of this nature entails. MnDOT asked FHWA for help on gaining that information.

Because the Maine Department of Transportation (MaineDOT) recently built a major bridge between Calais, ME, and St. Stephen, NB, FHWA judged Maine to be the best match for obtaining the information that Minnesota had requested. Stakeholders on both sides of the border rate the Calais/St. Stephen project, though complex in nature, to be a resounding success. MaineDOT staff and project consultants accepted an invitation to visit Minnesota to share their experiences and provide support.

Ernie Martin, MaineDOT’s project engineer on the Calais/St. Stephen bridge, says, “One of the keys to our success at Calais/St. Stephen was the extensive opportunity that we provided for stakeholder and public involvement. The level of international intergovernmental coordination and cooperation allowed us to receive and incorporate input captured at multiple levels of government in both countries.

“Many of the agencies and citizens we heard from were not traditional participants in the development of transportation projects, but their input was valuable. After the project was completed, we received numerous comments on how the new bridge made crossing the border a much more pleasant experience. New efficiencies gained from the project reduced wait times, increased mobility, improved the region’s economy, and enhanced the overall quality of life in the two border towns.”

The FHWA border team and staff from the FHWA Minnesota Division worked with MnDOT and MaineDOT to coordinate a workshop and develop a list of topics for the exchange. The workshop’s designers also invited three other States to participate in the exchange. Representatives from the Michigan, New York, and Vermont departments of transportation, all in the process of developing bridge projects at international borders, took part in the opportunity to share knowledge and compare experiences. Staff members from the U.S. General Services Administration were also on hand to offer their expertise in management issues and the impact of transportation improvements on administrative and inspection facilities at border crossings.

The Maine/New Brunswick project served as a case study, enabling event participants to learn about its planning, permitting, environmental issues, design, construction, and implementation. Also discussed were potential project challenges, successful strategies, and lessons learned. The workshop’s design maximized free-flowing discussion that enabled attendees to ask specific questions throughout the exchange.

“Perhaps the greatest value was the resource we gained by meeting folks who have been through this already and are willing to be of assistance to us,” says Tony Lesch, a bridge engineer with MnDOT. “The peer exchange provided me with a greater understanding of the steps and hurdles that lie ahead of us. But it also gave me a level of confidence that any hurdles we will encounter are not insurmountable.”

Maine staff has stayed in touch with their Minnesota counterparts as MnDOT has moved its Baudette/Rainy River project through the planning stages.

As a followup to the peer exchange, the FHWA Minnesota Division and MnDOT asked the FHWA border team to facilitate a stakeholder meeting in August 2013 as a kickoff for the Baudette/Rainy River project. The meeting served as an opportunity to bring together staff from numerous agencies that may have a role in contributing to the project as it moves forward. More than 40 attendees took part in person and via the telephone, representing Federal, State, Provincial, regional, county, and local agencies. The Ontario Ministry of Transportation acted as a meeting organizer and cohost for the event, which was held in Duluth, MN.

The meeting facilitators incorporated opportunities for active involvement from all participants during the 1-day working meeting. The morning featured four breakout sessions in which each group was asked two questions:

  • What impact do you perceive that you and your agency will have on this proposed project as it moves through the development process?

  • What questions do you have about the timeline or details of this proposed project?

Telephones at the breakout tables enabled those who had phoned in for the meeting an opportunity to contribute. Discussion items were thoroughly debated and written up on poster boards. The FHWA meeting facilitators then consolidated the comments, organizing them by topic area. The afternoon session consisted of a larger group discussion of specific project topics, including environmental issues, planning, design, traffic, construction, security, and administration.

Although most questions and issues raised by participants were addressed, a few items required followup by project sponsors. The sponsors anticipate continued outreach to the stakeholder group as the process of developing the project reaches milestones, or needs to share specific information develop.

Final Thoughts

The two projects--border wait time and information assistance to Minnesota are key components of FHWA’s efforts to help implement the Beyond the Border Action Plan. These FHWA projects help demonstrate how the agency can innovate to solve problems, provide technical assistance, collect and share data, and engage stakeholders.

Transportation officials in Minnesota and Ontario are working closely with stakeholders to explore alternatives for the aging bridge between Baudette, MN, and Rainy River, ON, shown here from the Minnesota side of the crossing.
Transportation officials in Minnesota and Ontario are working closely with stakeholders to explore alternatives for the aging bridge between Baudette, MN, and Rainy River, ON, shown here from the Minnesota side of the crossing.

“Through the development and implementation of cutting-edge technology and the sharing of technical know-how with project partners and stakeholders, FHWA strives to be a leader in improving the flow of people and goods at international borders,” says Roger Petzold, team leader of the Border and Interstate Planning Team, FHWA Office of Planning.


Chris Dingman is a transportation specialist with the FHWA Michigan Division whose work focuses on the northern border. He joined FHWA in 2007 and has a bachelor’s degree in public administration from Grand Valley State University and a master’s degree in community and regional planning from the University of Nebraska.

Special thanks to David Franklin, FHWA’s U.S.-Canadian border coordinator; Crystal Jones, FHWA’s team lead for freight program delivery; and Tiffany Julien, an FHWA transportation specialist, for their contributions to this article.

For more information, contact Chris Dingman at 517–702–1830 or christopher.dingman@dot.gov.

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