After 9/11, import data project became more urgent

After 9/11, import data project became more urgent<@VM>Project Automated Commercial Environment

The Automated Commercial Environment, the oldest ongoing systems project in the Border and Transportation Security Directorate, began life in the Treasury Department in the mid-1990s.

It proceeded in fits and starts, primarily because of funding problems, until April 2001, when the bureau awarded a $1.3 billion, 15-year contract to IBM Corp. for the project.

'The system at that time had more of a trade slant,' said Bill Inch, acting deputy director of the Customs Modernization Office, which oversees ACE.

Then came Sept. 11, and that changed everything for ACE. Border security became an imperative and ACE took on a dual role: expediting import processes and contributing to border security.

'We have to satisfy the twin goals of preventing terrorism and facilitating the legitimate flow of goods,' Inch said.

The $1.3 billion project, at least several years from completion, is intended to fully automate the process of tracking U.S. import data and end reliance on paper and the ancient, Cobol-based Automated Commercial System. When wrapped up, ACE will accelerate the flow of data via a single system interface.

The system has run into delays and cost overruns since it was inherited from Treasury's Customs Service. A GAO report last month said ACE releases 1 and 2 cost $109.4 million instead of the $86.1 million planned, and both were delayed.

Releases 3 and 4 also have been pushed back, with costs going from $146.4 million to $192.4 million, the report noted.

Agency officials said they agreed with GAO's criticisms and were working to get on track.

On the security side, CMO officials are working with U.S. Visit officials on sharing information via ACE that will boost U.S. Visit's efforts to track foreign nationals coming into the United States.

'There will be some interface as truck drivers cross borders,' Inch said. 'From a customs perspective, clearing cargo is one thing. Clearing the drivers themselves is another.'

Officials expect to roll out the next release of ACE software at the end of August after three months of pilot testing. Release 3 will let importers make monthly payments of duty online.

The release of the latest software will mark a significant expansion for ACE as the project moves toward a goal of full rollout in 2007.

Officials expect access to the portal to expand to about 20,000 users and 1,100 importer, broker and carrier accounts by the end of this year.

Another component of ACE, the Automated Truck Manifest, a totally paperless system that will let Customs officers retrieve advance data on shipments crossing the Canadian and Mexican borders, is scheduled for release at the end of November, Inch said.

The truck manifest system illustrates ACE's crucial role in information sharing operations with agencies outside DHS.

For example, requirements for the Transportation Department's Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration'relating to such matters as hazardous materials'will be included in the software when it is released later this year.

ACE is heavily enmeshed in critical information sharing efforts across the government. More than 20 agencies have border responsibilities and more than 100 have regulations affecting imports and exports.

Working with the International Trade Data System board of directors, CMO officials are capturing requirements from the departments of Transportation, Agriculture, Health and Human Services, and other DHS agencies.

The Food and Drug Administration, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, the International Trade Commission and the Army Corps of Engineers are integrating their operations into ACE design and development.

Can CBP make the 2007 milestone for full rollout of ACE?

'That's the game plan,' Inch said. 'We're working hard to work with the schedule. But I'm not going to say this is easy.'

'There will be some interface as truck drivers cross borders. From a customs perspective, clearing cargo is one thing. Clearing the drivers themselves is another.'

'Bill Inch, Acting Deputy Director, Customs Modernization Office

Henrik G. de Gyor

Agency: Bureau of Customs and Border Protection

Description: The program's goal is 'one screen at the border.' ACE is designed to automate the process of tracking U.S. imports and to provide a systematic, unified approach to border enforcement, replacing the outdated Automated Commercial System and paper processing.

Funding: $305 million for this year; $305.5 million proposed for 2005.

Prime contractor: In 2001, IBM Corp. was awarded a contract worth $1.3 billion over 15 years to lead an e-Customs Partnership of companies including Lockheed Martin Corp., KPMG Consulting and Computer Sciences Corp.

What's next: Software release 3 will let importers pay duty monthly online. Officials will test the system for three months and then roll it out to users. Also scheduled for release later this year: Automated Truck Manifest.

Outlook: Officials say rollout is picking up speed, with scheduled software releases this year bringing the total number of users to 20,000 by Dec. 31. Officials say they're working strenuously to meet the goal of full ACE rollout in 2007.

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