U.S.-Mexico Border:

CBP Action Needed to Improve Wait Time Data and Measure Outcomes of Trade Facilitation Efforts

GAO-13-603: Published: Jul 24, 2013. Publicly Released: Jul 24, 2013.

Additional Materials:


Rebecca S. Gambler
(202) 512-8777


Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800

What GAO Found

Within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), U.S. Customs and Border Protection's (CBP) data on commercial vehicle wait times--the time it takes to travel from the end of the queue to the CBP primary inspection point at land border crossings--are unreliable for public reporting and CBP management decisions across border crossings. These data--which are collected manually by CBP officers--are unreliable because CBP officers inconsistently implement an approved data collection methodology, and the methodologies used vary by crossing. For example, five of the six crossings GAO visited require observation of the end of the queue to estimate wait times, but officials at these crossings reported the lines extended beyond their view at times. As a result, these data are generally not used by the private sector and are of limited usefulness for CBP management decisions on staffing and infrastructure investments. Determining and taking steps to help CBP officials overcome challenges to consistent implementation of existing methodologies could improve the reliability and usefulness of CBP's current wait time data. CBP officials have identified automated wait time data collection technology as the best way to improve data reliability. The Department of Transportation (DOT), in coordination with state DOTs and CBP, has ongoing pilot projects to use technology to gather more reliable wait time data at some border crossings. However, CBP has not assessed the feasibility of replacing current methods with automated data collection. Doing so, consistent with program management standards, could help CBP determine how to best improve data reliability.

CBP officials report and analyses indicate infrastructure and staff needs, but documenting CBP's staff allocation process could improve transparency and facilitate review and validation by CBP and others. CBP officials and analyses identify needs for additional infrastructure--such as more lanes--at some crossings, and GAO analysis of CBP data on lane use generally supported agency views on the extent to which CBP opens lanes at the six crossings GAO visited. Further, GAO analysis of lane use and traffic volume data generally supported CBP officials' statements that they open and close primary inspection lanes in response to fluctuations in commercial traffic volume. CBP analyses identified a need for 3,811 additional officers, and CBP headquarters officials told GAO all southwest border ports require additional staff, but CBP field and port managers at three of six crossings GAO visited reported having sufficient staff. CBP human capital officials reported that they adjust staff allocations across locations to better ensure that staff levels match areas of greatest need, but CBP has not documented this process, and there is no guidance defining the methodology used or factors considered when allocating staff across ports. Documenting this process, consistent with internal control standards, could improve transparency, helping CBP and others to better ensure that scarce staff resources are effectively allocated to fulfill mission needs across ports.

CBP does not have outcome-oriented performance measures to determine the extent to which the agency is facilitating trade. The Office of Management and Budget and GAO guidance recommend using outcome-oriented measures to promote accountability for results. In the absence of such measures, it is difficult for the agency or others to gauge CBP's progress in meeting its stated goal of facilitating trade.

Why GAO Did This Study

Trade with Mexico is important to the United States' economy. Most of this trade crosses the border by truck, and studies have shown that long waits at border crossings can negatively affect the U.S. economy. CBP is responsible for securing U.S. borders at ports of entry to prevent illegal entry of persons and contraband while also facilitating legitimate trade and travel. GAO was asked to examine CBP data on and actions taken to address wait times at southwest border crossings. This report addresses the extent to which (1) CBP wait time data are reliable for public reporting and informing CBP decisions, (2) CBP has identified infrastructure and staffing needed to process current commercial traffic volumes, and (3) CBP performance measures assess progress toward its trade facilitation goal. GAO assessed the reliability of CBP's wait time data; visited six land border crossings (not generalizable, but selected largely for high traffic volume); analyzed CBP documentation, including needs assessments; and interviewed stakeholders and CBP officials.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends that CBP (1) determine and take steps to helpensure consistent implementation ofexisting wait time data collection methodologies, (2) assess the feasibility of replacing current methodologies with automated methods, (3) document its staff allocation process and rationale, and (4) develop outcome-oriented performance measures. DHS agreed with these four recommendations and identified steps to address them, although the planned actions will not address the intent of one.

For more information, contact Rebecca Gambler at (202) 512-8777 or gamblerr@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: As of May 2017, CBP officials report that in order to avoid further investment in a manual wait time methodology, the agency plans to focus resources on developing an enterprise-wide solution for automating the measurement of border delays. CBP estimates that this recommendation will be completed in October 2017.

    Recommendation: To improve the usefulness of southwest border crossing wait time data for informing public and management decisions, the Commissioner of CBP should identify and carry out steps that can be taken to help CBP port officials overcome challenges to consistent implementation of existing wait time estimation methodologies. Steps for ensuring consistent implementation of these methodologies could include, for example, implementing the fiscal year 2008 Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative report recommendations to use closed-circuit television cameras to measure wait time in real time and provide a standardized measurement and validation tool.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: United States Customs and Border Protection

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: As of May 2017, CBP's Office of Field Operations (OFO) reports working to identify a feasible and cost effective wait time solution to measure commercial vehicle delays along the southern border. Specifically, CBP officials report that they have been partnering with the Federal Highway Administration and the Texas A&M's Transportation Institute on the deployment of an automated radio-frequency identification measurement solution to measure commercial delays at eight crossings. To verify the accuracy of the automated wait time data, CBP officials report that in June 2016 they conducted a ground-truth analysis with mixed results. CBP officials report DHS Science and Technology directorate delivered their final report in February 2017 and by the end of September 2017, pending review and acceptance of the report's findings, CBP will coordinate efforts to develop the required communication protocols and data schematics for near real-time commercial vehicle wait time updates to the CBP Border Wait Time website and Border Wait Time app. CBP estimates that this recommendation will be completed in October 2017.

    Recommendation: To improve the usefulness of southwest border crossing wait time data for informing public and management decisions, the Commissioner of CBP should, in consultation with Federal Highway Administration and state DOTs, assess the feasibility of replacing current methods of manually calculating wait times with automated methods, which could include assessing all of the associated costs and benefits, options for how the agency will use and publicly report the results of automated data collection, the potential trade-offs associated with moving to this new system, and other factors such as those influencing the possible expansion of existing automation efforts to the 34 other locations that currently report wait times but have no automation projects under way.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: United States Customs and Border Protection

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: As of May 2017, CBP's Office of Field Operations (OFO) reports that they have adopted a workload staffing model to identify CBP staffing requirements at land ports of entry. CBP officials report that the workload staffing model provides senior leadership with a decision-support tool to identify the number of required resources for each location and accounts for distinct operating environments, unique variables, and major functions and activities. CBP officials report that they use the workload staffing model results in its budget requests and when allocating staff to the ports of entry. However, CBP has not provided GAO with documentation showing how staff are allocated among land ports of entry including how workload staffing model results are used in this process. CBP officials report that in May 2017 OFO began working with contracted experts to synthesize the quantitative and qualitative data available and develop a comprehensive CBP position allocation methodology. CBP estimates that this recommendation will be completed in March 2018.

    Recommendation: To better ensure that CBP's Office of Field Operations' (OFO) staffing processes are transparent and to help ensure CBP can demonstrate that these resource decisions have effectively addressed CBP's mission needs, the Commissioner of CBP should document the methodology and process OFO uses to allocate staff to land ports of entry on the southwest border, including the rationales and factors considered in making these decisions.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: United States Customs and Border Protection

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In September 2015, CBP officials provided documentation demonstrating that they had developed a new Government Performance Results Act performance measure capturing an outcome of CBP's Customs and Trade Partnership Against Terrorism (C-TPAT) trade facilitation program. C-TPAT is a customs-to-business partnership program that provides benefits, including reduced examination rates, to supply chain companies that agree to comply with predetermined security measures. To capture the cost savings resulting from this program, starting in the second quarter of fiscal year 2016 CBP will track the benefits of reduced examinations for C-TPAT program members by calculating the number of examinations a C-TPAT partner does not undergo due to membership in the program, multiplied by a nationally averaged dollar cost of an examination. Tracking and reporting this measure should help CBP better identify and publicly report the impact of the agency's trade facilitation programs. As a result, this recommendation is closed as implemented.

    Recommendation: To facilitate transparency and performance accountability for its trade facilitation programs and meeting CBP's goal of balancing its trade and security missions, the Commissioner of CBP should develop outcome-oriented performance measures or proxy measures to capture the impact of CBP's trade facilitation efforts, such as measures to determine the extent to which CBP trusted shipper programs have met their goals.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: United States Customs and Border Protection


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