Surface Transportation:

Improvements in the Bureau of Transportation Statistics' Commodity Flow Survey

RCED-98-90R: Published: Feb 27, 1998. Publicly Released: Feb 27, 1998.

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John H. Anderson, Jr
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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the Bureau of Transportation Statistics' and Bureau of Census's mandatory Commodity Flow Survey's burden on the private sector, particularly small businesses, focusing on the: (1) data the survey collects and the requirements the survey places on respondents; (2) actions the Bureau of Transportation Statistics and the Census Bureau have taken and plan to take to reduce the survey's reporting burden; and (3) public and private sector organizations' uses for the information that is reported from the survey.

GAO noted that: (1) the Commodity Flow Survey obtains information on the type of commodities shipped, the mode of transport used, and the origin and destination of the goods; (2) the Census Bureau estimates that the survey imposed 805,000 hours of work on the 100,000 businesses that participated in the 1997 survey; (3) between the 1993 and 1997 surveys, the Bureau of Transportations Statistics and the Census Bureau changed the survey to reduce the overall reporting burden on the private sector; (4) for example, the agencies reduced by one-half the number of businesses sampled, reduced the information collected in the survey, and shortened its completion time; (5) as a result, Census officials estimated that businesses spent 59 percent less time completing the 1997 survey than the 1993 survey; (6) although officials from both agencies are considering changes in future surveys to reduce the burden on respondents further, they stated that the survey will remain mandatory; (7) the Bureau of Transportation Statistics has limited data on the use of the information reported from the survey; (8) however, anecdotal information suggests that the survey provides federal, state, and local officials, as well as private organizations, with data for transportation planning and research activities; (9) for example, state and local transportation planners have incorporated commodity flow data, along with other data, into planning models and have emphasized the need for additional data for freight transportation planning; and (10) only recently have users had easy access to commodity flow data--as the Census Bureau released the information from the 1993 survey in a CD-ROM format in February 1997.

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