The threat of terrorism since Sept. 11 has massively tightened security along the 4,000-mile long U.S.-Canada border, and checkpoints that once took minutes to clear have taken hours. That's a problem for automakers and suppliers using just-in-time parts delivery to facilities throughout North America.

In 2000, Canada bought more U.S. goods than all 15 countries of the European Union combined. The U.S. and Canada comprise the world's largest trading relationship with an average of $1.3 billion crossing the border each day — about $300 million is automotive industry related. Last year, U.S. transactions with Canada totaled $489 billion.

U.S. and Canadian officials have been talking for years about improving border crossings, but little has been done. Under consideration since 1993 is the Automated Commercial Environment (ACE) program, which calls for a “smart border,” a high tech trade infrastructure that would permit truckers to file payload information electronically and beam it to customs agents prior to arriving at the border.

The current border system is outdated and requires oversight by too many government agencies, critics say. U.S.-Canadian trade increased 12% in 2000 vs. 1999, and commercial traffic is expected to triple in the next two decades. By 2020, the Blue Water Bridge connecting Port Huron, MI, and Sarnia, Ont., is expected to carry 2.9 million trucks, up 95% from 2001.

Suggestions by trade and business leaders include relocating inspection areas away from border checkpoints, exclusive border crossing routes for commercial trucks and increased use of waterways.

Owners of the Ambassador Bridge that links Detroit and Windsor, Ont., have plans to build a second span — but not until border traffic can be handled more smoothly. Customs-related tie-ups reduce the current span's efficiency to 52% of its maximum capacity, says Dave Jolly, general manager. If the current trend in traffic growth continues, he says, a second bridge could be sustained by 2015.

Toronto businessman Michael Nobrega proposes converting an under-utilized rail tunnel between Detroit and Windsor to a subway exclusively for commercial trucks. A new tunnel would be dug for trains.

But new bridges and tunnels don't do any good if there aren't federal agents to staff checkpoints. Limited help appears to be on the way.

In late October, President Bush signed anti-terrorism legislation that triples the number of border patrol agents and authorizes $50 million for improvements to border security. But one industry source says the staffing increase — which translates to 300 new agents — is 200 less than the industry deemed necessary before Sept. 11. The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service says it will receive funding to hire 75 additional inspectors for Michigan border crossings, with more on the way.