Oversight

CBP needs better ways to estimate wait times

trucks leaving mexico

Trucks line up to cross from Mexico into the U.S. (CBP photo)

Estimating how long commercial trucks must wait in the northbound line  at the U.S.-Mexican border is not as straightforward as it sounds. U.S. Customs and Border Protection is having difficulty gathering that kind of data uniformly at numerous border crossings across the Southwest because its collection methods are unreliable and in need of automation, according to a new report by the Government Accountability Office.

The GAO report, released by Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn, ranking member of the Judiciary Committee's  Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees and Border Security,  was critical of CBP's methods for collecting data on the time it takes commercial vehicles to travel from the end of an entry line to the primary inspection lane at six land ports of entry. Border wait times are crucial for truckers who regularly cross the Mexican and Canadian borders. Every minute a truck spends in line waiting for inspection can mean lost trade revenue and negative effects on the U.S. economy, said GAO.

CBP began collecting the border crossing wait time data at a limited number of crossings in 2001 in response to the long delays that ensued as security tightened after the Sept. 11 terror attacks. It began formalizing the process at other crossings and now makes the information available online for 42 of 46 crossings on the Southwestern border.

Processing commercial vehicles into the United States at land ports of entry involves a series of synchronized steps. The agency uses various databases and tools, including the Automated Targeting System, Automated Commercial Environment and local Advance Targeting Units (ATU) to screen and assign risk levels to travelers and cargo entering the United States.

At border crossings, however, CBP's complex digitized process -- intended to speed the flow of cargo -- is sometimes at the mercy of the limits of everyday human observation.

To calculate wait times at border crossings, the CBP has relied on two methodologies, said GAO. The first is line-of-sight observation by the port of entry director of the lines of traffic entering the crossing, estimating times using landmarks along those lines. If the line is obscured by bad weather (dust storms are common in the desert), or the end of the line is not visible to the observer, CBP policy recommends that officials estimate wait times using the second methodology, which is to ask at least five drivers how long they have been waiting in line, drop the highest and lowest responses, and average the rest.

Those techniques, said GAO, are not reliable and vary considerably from crossing to crossing and among port directors. "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," GAO concluded.

At all five of the crossings GAO studied,  the end of the line sometimes extended beyond landmarks used in the line-of-sight methodology and none had a camera system in place with the capacity to consistently view the end of queues. Two crossings in Laredo, Texas -- World Trade Bridge and Columbia Solidarity Bridge -- had camera systems that allowed officials to see the line several miles into Mexico, but CBP officers noted that those systems could not be used to see the end of the queue on hazy and dusty days.

CBP previously questioned the method in its fiscal 2008 Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative program office, saying that if CBP officials cannot see the end of the line, they cannot accurately gauge the full duration of wait times.

In light of its study, GAO recommended CBP determine what steps were needed to get consistent implementation of existing wait-time data collection techniques and make strides toward implementing them. It also said CBP should think about replacing the methodologies with automated methods.

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a staff writer at FCW.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, tele.com magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at mrockwell@fcw.com or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.


The Fed 100

Save the date for 28th annual Federal 100 Awards Gala.

Featured

  • computer network

    How Einstein changes the way government does business

    The Department of Commerce is revising its confidentiality agreement for statistical data survey respondents to reflect the fact that the Department of Homeland Security could see some of that data if it is captured by the Einstein system.

  • Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. Army photo by Monica King. Jan. 26, 2017.

    Mattis mulls consolidation in IT, cyber

    In a Feb. 17 memo, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told senior leadership to establish teams to look for duplication across the armed services in business operations, including in IT and cybersecurity.

  • Image from Shutterstock.com

    DHS vague on rules for election aid, say states

    State election officials had more questions than answers after a Department of Homeland Security presentation on the designation of election systems as critical U.S. infrastructure.

  • Org Chart Stock Art - Shutterstock

    How the hiring freeze targets millennials

    The government desperately needs younger talent to replace an aging workforce, and experts say that a freeze on hiring doesn't help.

  • Shutterstock image: healthcare digital interface.

    VA moves ahead with homegrown scheduling IT

    The Department of Veterans Affairs will test an internally developed scheduling module at primary care sites nationwide to see if it's ready to service the entire agency.

  • Shutterstock images (honglouwawa & 0beron): Bitcoin image overlay replaced with a dollar sign on a hardware circuit.

    MGT Act poised for a comeback

    After missing in the last Congress, drafters of a bill to encourage cloud adoption are looking for a new plan.

Reader comments

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above

More from 1105 Public Sector Media Group