The mandate for U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) to collect and disseminate transportation statistics originates with the Department’s founding in 1966. This mandate has been pursued since then by individual operating administrations, each attempting to fill its own information needs with its own systems for data collection and statistical analysis. Attempts to develop a multimodal, coordinated data program during DOT’s first quarter century were not sustained.
The need for a more proactive program of data collection and analysis that bridged across the DOT's operating administrations was recognized in the Department’s Statement of National Transportation Policy, approved and released by the White House in February, 1990. Major data gaps identified in the Statement included statistics on domestic and international flows of freight and passenger traffic by all modes, the extent and performance of intermodal connections, the financial and operating characteristics of smaller carriers, and the costs of both for-hire and private transportation incurred by each sector of the economy. The Statement committed DOT to “develop a comprehensive assessment of data needs and priorities of the Department and the transportation community, [and] develop more effective and permanent institutional mechanisms within the Department to ensure that transportation-related data collected by different agencies can be effectively linked, to collect data on multimodal passenger and freight transportation flows, and to integrate and disseminate transportation-related data collected by DOT and other public agencies.”
As part of the National Transportation Policy effort, DOT funded a study of strategic data needs by the Transportation Research Board (TRB) of the National Academy of Sciences. The findings of the TRB study, published in Data for Decisions: Requirements for National Transportation Policy Making (Special Report 234), highlighted a wide range of data deficiencies and recommended: establishment of a data center within the DOT to provide the focal point for the compilation and integration of systemwide transportation data; development of a national transportation performance monitoring system to track key indicators of the Nation's transportation system and its environment from the perspective of markets and users, with the results reported biennially; and funding of multimodal surveys of commodity and passenger flows.
Senate hearings on reauthorization of the surface transportation program, coincidentally scheduled just after the first meeting of the TRB study panel, included members of the panel to discuss transportation trends and issues. Panel members indicated how little was known about transportation trends given a 15-year decline in multimodal data collection. The message resonated with Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who included provisions to create and fund the Bureau of Transportation Statistics in the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) that became law on December 18, 1991.
The Bureau of Transportation Statistics started operations informally during the week of October 19, 1992, and became an operating administration of DOT under the management order of December 16, 1992. BTS began immediately to develop its first product, the Transportation Data Sampler CD-ROM, which went into distribution 26 days later.
BTS acquired the Office of Airline Information (OAI) on June 1, 1995 at the request of the Secretary of Transportation. OAI originated as the financial and operating statistics arm of the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) and moved to DOT following the Board’s sunset.
The National Transportation Library evolved out of a BTS information-sharing project and was initially recognized by Congress in the Department of Transportation Appropriations Act of 1997 passed in September 1996. The Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21) made the National Transportation Library a permanent part of BTS in 1998.
The Congress placed BTS in the new Research and Innovative Technology Administration in 2005. The position of BTS Director, which had been a Senate-confirmed Presidential appointment, became a Secretarial appointee from the career civil service.
BTS moved with the rest of the Research and Innovative Technology Administration to the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Transportation for Research and Technology, as authorized in the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act on December 4, 2015. The FAST Act also created the port performance freight statistics program and strengthened the Bureau’s ability to produce statistical products free of political influence.
The history of issues covered by BTS is highlighted in Two Decades of Change in Transportation Reflections from Transportation Statistics Annual Reports 1994–2014.
Dr. T.R. Lakshmanan (1932-2020) first BTS Director.