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.

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Contact:

Rebecca S. Gambler
(202) 512-8777
gamblerr@gao.gov

 

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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: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Since GAO's July 2013 recommendation, CBP has taken steps to identify ways to overcome challenges to consistent implementation of existing wait time estimation methodologies. Specifically, in 2017, CBP conducted an assessment of CBP's wait time capture and reporting process at land ports of entry and found that the agency's border wait time policy was not consolidated or uniformly applied. Following this assessment, in March 2018, CBP issued a consolidated land border wait time reporting policy. Further, CBP's new policy suggests the use of a standardized calculator-an excel spreadsheet-to facilitate the manual estimation of wait times. It is unclear if the steps CBP has taken fully address the challenges port officials identified in our July 2013 report-difficulty estimating wait times when there were gaps between vehicles and when the end of the queue was not visible-but reissuing CBP's guidance and promoting the use of a standardized calculator may improve consistent use of CBP's manual wait time estimation methodology. This recommendation is closed as implemented.

    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: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Since GAO's July 2013 recommendation, DHS has undertaken several studies related to the feasibility of replacing current methods of manually calculating wait times with automated methods. For example, DHS commissioned a study, published in February 2017, to better understand the accuracy of Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) based systems to measure the travel time of commercial vehicles entering the U.S. The stated purpose of the study was to support decisions related to whether RFID-based systems should be broadly deployed to other border crossing sites across the United States. Further, DHS commissioned a study, published in March 2017, to develop a concept of operations for a land port of entry wait estimation system for commercial and passenger vehicles that takes advantage of emerging technologies. This study included an analysis of strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities of various technology options considering the technology's functional capabilities, market trends, deployment costs, and maturity. Most recently, in January and February 2018, CBP completed two studies to determine if vendor-provided traffic data could be used to accurately predict vehicle wait times at land border crossings. CBP officials reported using these analyses and others to inform their decisions about the feasibility of deploying automated wait time measurement technologies. This recommendation is closed as implemented.

    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: CBP officials reported that, in May 2017, the Office of Field Operations began working with a contractor to develop a comprehensive CBP position allocation methodology and tool. They reported that the purpose of this tool is to ensure a data driven, transparent process for allocating CBP resources-including staff-to land ports of entry on the southwest border. CBP officials reported that the contractor completed development of the tool in January 2018, CBP tested the tool in fiscal year 2018, and planned to implement the tool in fiscal year 2019. Developing this tool is a positive first step, but CBP will need to adopt the tool and ensure that the methodology and process used to allocate staff to land ports of entry, including rationales and factors considered, are documented. This recommendation remains open. In April 2019, CBP confirmed that their next steps are to (1) adopt the tool and (2) demonstrate that the methodology and process used to allocate staff to land ports of entry, including rationales and factors considered, are documented. CBP anticipates fully addressing this recommendation by September 30, 2020.

    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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