Using technology to move freight in Washington state

Using technology to move freight in Washington state

McCormack, Edward

WASHINGTON’S LOCATION IN the northwest corner of the continental United States provides the state with a number of trade advantages. Washington’s ports are closer to Asia than any other major American port and the state shares an international boundary with the United States’ largest trade partner, Canada. In addition, many goods bound for Alaska travel through Washington. As a result, one in four jobs in Washington is dependent on trade.

Recognizing the importance of this link, the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) developed a series of innovative technology systems designed to facilitate the commercial movement of goods while addressing growing security concerns. These systems, developed in partnership with a wide range of public and private organizations, typically use radio frequency identification transponders (often called tags) to transfer freight information, facilitate inspections and monitor commercial vehicles and their drivers and cargos.


Washington was one of the first states to use Commercial Vehicle Information Systems and Networks (CVISN). This national truck safety and electronic screening system uses transponders to relieve truckers of the need to stop at weigh stations for inspections and provides state agencies that enforce truck weights, credentials and safety with better information.

Washington currently has five CVISN weigh-in-motion stations operating along key corridors. These roadside weigh stations allow registered, safe and legal truckers who have purchased a $50 windshield transponder to bypass the stations at freeway speeds while other truckers are required to stop for weighing and inspections. This mainline bypass is possible because each CVISN weigh station has an in-road weigh scale and a system of overhead transponder readers known as an automatic vehicle identifier (AVI).

A CVISN truck is weighed at roadway speeds while the AVI sensor queries the windshield transponder for unique identifying data and references safety and credential information. If the truck is under legal weight limits and has a good safety and credential status, the AVI reader activates a green light on the transponder, indicating to the driver that there is no need to stop. A red light indicates that the driver needs to report to the scale so that the truck can be closely inspected.

This well received system saves commercial carriers time and money and also allows for better commercial vehicle enforcement. The same CVISN transponder can be used by truckers for weigh station bypass in a number of other states. As funding becomes available, Washington plans to continue to expand this system with 14 additional CVISN stations. WSDOT also is working closely with the province of British Columbia, Canada, to install a CVISN station and connect the respective safety databases.


Seattle, WA, Tacoma, WA and Vancouver, British Columbia, each have major container ports. Depending on a ship’s call schedule, containers bound for Canada may end up at the port of Seattle or Tacoma (and vice versa). As a result, many shipments that come into Pacific Northwest ports must be sent “in-bond” to Canada.

This means that shippers post bonds to ensure that the containers will not be opened in the United States. The bonds are cleared when the containers leave the United States. If no record exists of a shipment leaving the United States, the bond cannot be cleared and a fine may be levied.

The successful use of transponders for weigh-in-motion stations suggested that transponders also could be used to clear in-bond shipments electronically. Significant economic benefits can accrue to shippers who use electronic clearance systems to track their in-bond shipments. In addition, the use of transponders eliminates paperwork, offering substantial benefits to agencies in the form of reduced bottlenecks at border crossings. Regulatory agencies also can focus resources on inspection and security tasks rather than tracking misplaced paperwork.

In-Bond Border ClearanceNorthbound

Development of the first in-bond border clearance system began six years ago. The system, which now is operational, was designed to monitor and facilitate the movement of northbound trucks carrying containerized, in-bond freight through the Blaine commercial port of entry into Canada. The Blaine international crossing, on State Route 543, is approximately 100 miles north of Seattle. (Figure 1 shows a map of the region.)

Blaine often is a freight bottleneck; it is the fourth busiest commercial crossing on the U.S.-Canada border and was used by almost one million trucks in 20.01. Truck traffic at this crossing has doubled since 1991 but enforcement agencies have not seen a commensurate increase in resources. As a result, long queues of commercial vehicles are a frequent sight at the Blaine border crossing.

The U.S. Department of Transportation (U.S. DOT), U.S. Customs Service and WSDOT funded the in-bond border system. Critical partners included the system integrator TransCore, the ports of Seattle and Tacoma, American President Lines (APL), Maersk Sealand and the Washington Trucking Association.

Today, the system tracks in-bond containers out of the ports to Canada and then clears them at the border. As part of this effort, the project team installed a number of transponder readers at the ports, along Interstate 5 and at the customs facility at the border. Much of the project effort went into developing software to link various organizations” freight and manifest databases. Following is a description of how the system works:

* As a truck hauling an in-bond container bound for Canada leaves either APL (at the port of Seattle) or Maersk Sealand (at the Port of Tacoma), a reader detects the transponder.

* Software then references the shipping line’s and U.S. Customs Service’s container and in-bond information and posts it on a project Web site.

* The system alerts the Customs Service and other users that a container has left a port, is heading north toward Canada and should be expected in a few hours.

* Other transponder readers installed at weigh stations along Interstate 5 provide additional in-route location information. An advanced reader installed on an approach road onequarter mile south of the international border gives U.S. Customs inspectors at Blaine sufficient time to preview the in-bond transaction status before the truck arrives. The inspectors then may allow the container and truck to pass the border with little or no delay.

* A final reader at the border automatically clears the bond on the shipment in the Customs Service’s automated manifest system and records the cargo as exported. The responsible carrier is notified simultaneously. This automatic process helps to eliminate ongoing problems and fines associated with “lost” in-bond shipments and paperwork errors.

This in-bond procedure uses an Internet-based information management system, located at The Internet provides universal connectivity and the in-bond system can successfully and inexpensively link databases maintained by a range of freight and enforcement organizations as well as a network of AVI readers.

The Web site includes information about the trans ponder-read location, date, time and freight-related information associated with a transponders identifying data. Advance, pre-processing and targeting information is available to authorized users through the Web site. (For security and privacy protection, information from the system is available only to authorized users.) Once within the system, business users can see only information about their own vehicles or shipments. Enforcement agencies have access to all screens. In addition, Customs and other enforcement agencies can customize the screens to include cautionary, security and targeting information.

In-Bond Border Clearance– Southbound

The first in-bond transponder system was designed for containers traveling north to Canada. A second-phase southbound system was supported effectively by a bi-national coalition of government and business entities known as the International Mobility and Trade Corridor Project. The funds resulting from this support came from U.S. DOT, Transport Canada, the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia (the province’s truck enforcement agency), WSDOT and the British Columbia Ministry of Transportation (MoT). This phase focuses on in-bond shipments in containers traveling southbound from Canada to the ports of Seattle and Tacoma, where the containers are placed on vessels for export. WSDOT and MoT jointly manage this project. The southbound system, which currently is being deployed, will use the same transponders and, as much as possible, the same software as the northbound system.

As currently planned, a Canadian shipper will create a container in-bond transaction. This transaction will permit the container across the border within a five-day period. Transponder readers, which recently were installed at southbound inspection booths at the Blaine crossing and were posted on the project’s Web site, will detect the transponderequipped, registered truck carrying the container. Similar to the northbound system, the location, date, time and freight and manifest will be displayed along with the transponder data used to identify the vehicle and shipping agent. Advance, pre-processing and targeting information will be available to authorized users accessing either the U.S. Customs Service data systems or the project’s Web site. The manifest information will be accessible to U.S. Customs inspectors prior to the container’s arrival at Blaine. Canadian Customs inspectors will be able to use the transponder’s unique identifying data for their export processes. As with the first-phase system, verification that the southbound container has arrived at the port of Seattle or Tacoma and has been scheduled to exit the United States (on ships) will clear the bond automatically, reducing paperwork errors.

Early in the deployment of the inbond systems, it was recognized that a transponder-equipped truck stuck at the border behind a queue of trucks without transponders would not receive the full benefits of the transponder system. In an effort to develop borders that are more technology-oriented, WSDOT and MoT are jointly funding a southbound truck staging area in British Columbia, just north of the Blaine crossing, which will include transponder lanes. Long-term discussion of a northbound transponder truck lane also has taken place. Any improvements to the roads leading to the border stations typically would include consideration of clearance technology in the design process, such as reader sites and conduit for communications lines.


As designed for border systems, inbond containers can be cleared because they are associated, via software, with windshield-mounted truck transponders. However, because of security issues, the U.S. Customs Service preferred a more positive identification of containers. Another transponder linked directly to cargo could be used to track shipping containers both in ports and along roadways and help sort the containers in terminals. Responding to this need, WSDOT obtained funding from U.S. DOT to test transponders designed for use on containers.

The project team selected a cargo transponder door seal developed by eLogicity, a Singaporean manufacturer. The seal is disposable and designed to replace a standard mechanical container door seal. (see Figure 2). It can be read or programmed with a container number using a handheld device and can be detected by a fixed roadside installation. For security purposes, the seal also sends a message if it has been tampered with.

As initially available, the seal was not suitable for use in a border or highway environment. The transmission range was only 12 feet and the transmission rate was so infrequent that it could be read only at slow speeds. WSDOT and TransCore partnered with eLogicity to re-engineer the seal to transmit more frequently and with a stronger signal. The new seal has a shorter-but acceptable-30-day battery life and is readable at speeds up to 45 miles per hour with an adequate range. The seal transmits at a military frequency (315 megahertz); therefore, the project team had to obtain a waiver from the U.S. Federal Communications Commission to proceed with the testing.

For this project, the team installed a reader and an antenna on the northbound lane at the Blaine crossing, which was used as an exit reader for containers secured with a door seal. The team then developed two operational tests to explore the viability of the seal.

In one test, the seal is used to track, secure and clear shipments for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which is responsible for tracking in-bond shipments of prohibited food products. USDA had been experiencing difficulty confirming whether containers trans-shipping through the ports of Seattle and/or Tacoma had left the country and moved into Canada, clearing the bond. At the port of Tacoma, USDA inspectors are programming each door seal with a unique container number, locking the seal onto a container of prohibited products and entering the seal information into the project Web site. Once the container passes through the seal reader at Blaine and into Canada, the system reports to USDA that the prohibited shipment has exited the United States. The USDA test soon will be expanded to include in-bond shipments leaving Mexico, transiting the United States and exiting at Blaine into Canada. USDA inspectors will attach the door seals in Laredo, TX, USA.

The project team also worked with Westwood Shipping Lines to test the door sea& usability and durability on international container moves. The test involved attaching the seals at a terminal in Shimizu, Japan, on containers of automobile parts destined for Canada. These containers (about 60 over a nine-month period) were loaded on a Westwood ship and unloaded as in-bond containers at the port of Seattle, where a customs inspector read them with a handheld reader. The containers then were drayed by truck to Canada.

At this time, about 150 door seals have been installed on containers as part of both tests. The operational test of the first 75 seals highlighted a number of procedural and technical problems. Technical problems included defective batteries in the seals and confused reads due to signals from multiple seals. Procedural problems included drivers’ using the wrong lane at the Blaine crossing; failure of terminal staff or inspectors to install the seals on container doors correctly; and failure of the project team to inform USDA when the system was taken down for a hardware update. This last problem resulted in several shipments traveling into Canada undetected.

Because WSDOT approached these technology projects incrementally, each problem was relatively minor and was addressed in consultation with the project partners. Most of the seal test problems were resolved and, as a result, the detection rate was 100 percent with the last 75 seals. WSDOT is using this knowledge to expand the seal tests. The state received additional U.S. DOT funding to explore other seal technologies and develop additional operational tests of cargo transponder seals. The new tests will be completed in conjunction with a Canadian effort to develop a container seal system. This will ensure that future seal systems will work on both sides of the border.


At the present time, there is an active truck transponder system in Washington combined with a large and growing network of AVI readers. WSDOT’s container transponder seal tests have shown that this technology is viable. The ultimate goal of WSDOT is to promote the continued use and further integration of truck and cargo transponders and add electronic driver information-such as the Fast and Secure Trade card, which already is being installed at the borderto develop a border-oriented electronic truck. Such a truck arriving at the border would give enforcement agencies rapid and accurate transponder-based information about the cargo, the truck or trucking firm and the driver. Access to transponders would be linked to carriers in existing or planned trusted carrier incentive programs so that only safe and legal carriers would participate and benefit from such a system.

There are many benefits of electronic information at the border. On a basic level, the use of electronic information can increase accuracy and reduce paperwork and language errors. One major benefit for trucking firms is that enforcement agencies can expedite movement through the border crossing, ideally using special transponder lanes and therefore reducing queues and processing time. (Of course, these agencies still can inspect any truck, driver, or cargo they choose.) In turn, the electronic information can allow enforcement agencies an opportunity to better focus their limited resources on the trucks and cargos that are of a higher risk The transponders also can allow shippers to monitor their shipments and vehicles, promoting improved efficiency for freight movement.

Looking toward the fixture, WSDOT is working to expand the freight technology system beyond containers. Many trucks on Washington’s highways are using the CVISN transponder for weigh station bypass but they are not hauling containers. Developing a system to give these carriers an advantage at the border is important. WSDOT also is coordinating with a number of national and international container security programs that have been introduced as a result of the United States’ new emphasis on freight security.

Copyright Institute of Transportation Engineers Apr 2003

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved.