Eighteen months worth of funding. That’s how much Customs and Border Protection needs to wrap up development of a long-delayed major cargo-processing system.
The agency thinks it has secured about $70 million, carried over from past budgets to get it halfway, or 18 months closer, to its goal of fully implementing the Automated Commercial Environment in three years.
But to finish the job, which is already more than $1 billion over budget, the agency and the trade community will have to convince Congress to pony up more money or the Department of Homeland Security to reallocate funding, said Jon Kent, chief lobbyist for the National Customs Brokers and Forwarders Association of America. No money was allocated for the development of ACE, the automated umbrella system for all of Customs’ communications with importers, exporters and brokers, in the fiscal 2013 budget that runs through next Sept. 30.
“The general feeling in the community is that (ACE) has to be finished and we have to move forward,” said Susan Kohn Ross, an international trade attorney. “I think the trade community will rally around the message.”
Core to that message is that the delays in implementing ACE are doing just the opposite the new system is intended to do: They’re costing customs brokers extra money and slowing their shipments. Customs brokers have to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on software for the new system and the Automated Commercial System, the outdated system ACE is replacing. Shifting between the systems also can delay the release of imported goods.
Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, told customs brokers in late November that he supports ACE but he needs a more detailed plan from Customs on how the agency plans to complete the system. A customs authorization bill introduced this month by Brady, chair of the House Ways and Means Committee’s subcommittee on trade, requires Customs to do just that.
The bill won’t set funding for ACE, but it could send a strong message to appropriators that the House deems development of the system a priority.
Customs said it would provide Congress and the trade community a more detailed plan on ACE development after it gets a better feel of its new approach of giving programmers bite-size pieces to work on. The agency in the past has used a so-called waterfall approach of complex development, but the delays and reduced funding require a more agile strategy. The agency also needs to determine how much it will cost to shift pieces of entry transactions from ACS and what parts of ACE need modernizing, considering work on the system began a decade ago.
Despite an uncertain funding future, ACE progress has marched on this year, namely through shifting ocean and rail manifest systems from ACS to the new system. That leaves only the air manifest system on the 1980s-era platform. The increase in entry summaries on the ACE system from the low-single digits six months ago to 20 percent suggests the trade community is embracing the new system, said Michael Ford, vice president of regulatory compliance and quality for global logistics provider BDP International.
Adoption “may not be fast enough, but it is happening,” said Ford, who has been advising the agency on ACE since 2003. “I am excited for 2013, because they should begin the first part of the export side.”
Aside from developing the export component of ACE, Customs also must work in 2013 to create a document image system for the International Trade Data System, said Brenda Smith, the agency’s executive director for trade policy and programs in the Office of International Trade. The new tool will allow Customs to accept paper forms as images into the single-window platform used to distribute essential trade information to other federal regulators.
Work also will continue on the Participating Government Agencies Message Set, a data form that includes fields for all information needed by Customs and 46 other agencies, including the Food and Drug Administration and the Consumer Product Safety Commission. By filling out one comprehensive form, brokers and importers won’t have to fill out paperwork for each agency that needs to clear the shipment.
After October, however, the plan is less clear, because the agency is still refining its approach to ACE development in fiscal 2014. By the spring, Customs hopes to have a clear outline for ACE development to share with Congress and the trade community, both of which have their share of skeptics.
“The trade community is skeptical of (Customs’) goal to include export data,” said Doug Jacobson, a trade attorney who represents importers and exporters. “It seems very pie in the sky.”
He said many of his clients complain that the ACE data isn’t user-friendly and isn’t their go-to source, with some still choosing to load needed data via CD-ROM. System complaints aside, ACE development also depends on whether money is available in the fiscal 2014 federal budget.
“Everyone is looking over the (fiscal) cliff right now,” Kent said. “That will dictate whether specific programs are funded or not. Right now, people are kind of frozen in place.”