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RFID Readers Installed at U.S.-Mexican Bridges to Help Ease Traffic Congestion

To better measure traffic flow, the Texas Transportation Institute and private R&D organization Battelle have installed a system that reads government-issued passive UHF tags attached to the windshields of northbound commercial traffic.
By Claire Swedberg
Nov 21, 2011Trucks play a major role in bringing goods across the border into the United States from Mexico through several dozen land ports of entry (POEs), and their sheer volume frequently causes congestion at the ports as the vehicles proceed through inspection by agencies on both sides of the border. To gauge the amount of congestion, however, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has historically depended on reports from drivers regarding their wait times, as well as on visual inspections conducted by officers regarding queue lengths. This information is posted on the CBP's Web site, and is shared with other governmental entities.

The drawback, however, is that the information has been anecdotal, and thus not as accurate as an automated solution would be.

A work crew installs RFID readers above the roadway at the Bridge of the Americas, in El Paso, Texas.

In 2007, researchers at Texas A & M University's Texas Transportation Institute (TTI), together with private research and development organization Battelle, began applying RFID technology to help gauge north-bound traffic at the Bridge of the Americas (BOTA), in El Paso, Texas. The system developed employs RFID readers to capture the daily movements of trucks passing through three inspection stations en route from Mexico to the United States at the BOTA crossing. The solution, initially developed as a research project funded by the U.S. Department of Transportation's Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), includes TTI software to manage data culled from TransCore RFID interrogators that read a variety of passive RFID tags and protocols, using truck drivers' existing transponders attached to their windshields for toll-payment or shipment clearance identification, to ease the Customs inspection process. This process does not include tracking individuals, but simply collecting an ID number and a timestamp as a transponder passes a reader location. No information regarding trucks, drivers, motor carriers or cargo is collected, says Rajat Rajbhandari, a TTI research engineer.

TTI has also deployed the system at four other U.S. entry points in Texas, Rajbhandari says, with funding provided by the Texas Department of Transportation (DOT). The solution will also be installed in Arizona within the next several months, for that state's Department of Transportation (ADOT).

Approximately 4.7 million trucks cross the U.S. border from Mexico each year, at about a dozen POEs. On average, 25,000 trucks cross the BOTA to El Paso every month. Bottlenecks at this and other border crossings can lead to truck queues extending a mile or longer in length. Therefore, in an effort to improve the accuracy of information used to manage border traffic and reduce delays, FHWA first sought bidders, in 2006, for an automated solution that would determine how long it took for vehicles to pass from Mexico, prior to inspection by Mexican customs, through U.S. federal and state inspections on the Texas side of the border. The system was deployed a year later.

To gain an understanding of the degree of traffic—and when bottlenecks occur—according to time and day of the week, state and federal agencies responsible for processing commercial vehicle traffic crossing the border have often simply collected anecdotal information obtained by having staff members ask truck drivers how long it took to travel from the end of the queue to the CBP primary inspection booths, as well as by visually estimating how far back the trucks have lined up. Using an RFID-based solution, the time required for crossings could be tracked automatically, with the time and date recorded as each vehicle passes key locations. That data could then be utilized to help border-crossing agencies to strategize traffic solutions, such as opening extra lanes at specific times. The agencies could also share the traffic data with trucking companies and product shippers, so that they could schedule drivers to cross the border during times of lower traffic congestion.

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