WASHINGTON — It’s still more than three years away, but completion of Customs and Border Protection’s long-delayed major cargo-processing system appears to be in sight.
The agency plans on fully implementing the Automated Commercial Environment on Oct. 1, 2016, but that’s largely dependent on Congress giving Customs roughly $420 million to finish the job. Federal sequestration cuts set to take effect could also imperil the completion of the system aimed at saving shippers money and speeding up shipments.
ACE — an automated umbrella system for all of Customs’ communications with importers, exporters and brokers — has already cost slightly more than $3 billion and is more than $1 billion over budget. The delays have hurt customs brokers who have had to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on software for ACE and the outdated cargo processing system it is replacing.
The agency is betting that its new agile development methodology, the creation and rolling out of bite-size pieces more frequently and getting regular industry feedback, will get the initiative back on track. Customs has been using the agile strategy since January. Encouraging, the Department of Homeland Security in June gave its blessing to Customs’ plan to finish up ACE in roughly three years.
Ahead of the final deadline, the trade community needs to be aware of two other pressing deadlines. First, come May 1, 2015, all electronic data and export manifest data must be transmitted via ACE, not the outdated Automated Commercial System.
“We don’t think that is a huge lift. They currently have to file sea, rail and truck manifest information, so we are just talking about air (manifests) and some other refinements,” said Brenda Smith, executive director of Customs' ACE business office.
Then six months later, all data associated with the release of cargo, including filing relating to other partner government agencies, such as the Food and Drug Administration, will have to be sent via ACE. The Nov. 1, 2015, date is also a deadline of sorts for the 47 partner government agencies that can hold or slow down the movement of cargo.
The Food Safety and Inspection Service and the Environmental Protection Agency have already gotten on board with contributing to a data form that includes fields for all information needed by Customs and 47 other agencies. The aim is to have one comprehensive form, so brokers and importers won’t have to fill out paperwork for each agency that needs to clear a shipment.
Through its agile model, the agency will deploy segments of ACE every three months for the next nine months, and then the “drops” will come every six months until summer 2016, Smith said. The next phase of deployment in October will be mostly technical, meaning the trade industry “will be seeing minor changes but not rock your world changes.” The deployment will also include integrating “data elements” from EPA and FSIS.
Smith said deployments in January and April will focus on simplified entry processes, refine data validation and make edits requested by the trade industry. She said the agency over the next 12 months will also work on building ACE’s export component by first modernizing the technology and then streamlining the entry process by taking into account export controls reform and President Obama’s initiative to double exports by 2015.
“We get the message that for both better facilitation and better enforcement we have to have the data and be able to use the data. Getting the data has to be cheap and easy,” Smith said.
Congress appears to “comfortable” with the agency’s plan to finish ACE, but there is still some skepticism as well, Smith said. The support of the Advisory Committee on Commercial Operations of Customs and Border Protection, better known as COAC, has helped keep momentum on finishing ACE, she said.