ARLINGTON, Va. — They’re making strides, but the Defense Department still falls short on shipping household goods and estimating how much a proposed shipping service is going to cost the taxpayer, a recent audit states.

The Pentagon has made progress in getting 3-year-old pilot studies off the ground, but still hasn’t put into practice a method to deliver the best and timeliest service of shipping servicemembers’ household goods from one duty station to another, according to a report from the General Accounting Office.

The GAO is Congress’ investigative branch, which watches for waste, fraud, abuse and mismanagement in government agencies.

And, auditors said, the department’s “conservative estimate” of a 13 percent increase in costs is not backed by firm data. Based on DOD history in the area, that price tag is likely to be higher, Lawson Gist, one of the GAO auditors, said in a phone interview.

The department now spends more than $1.7 billion a year to move and store more than 600,000 household goods shipments for relocating military personnel.

In 1999, on recommendations of the GAO, the Pentagon’s Military Traffic Management Command launched pilot studies on better ways to deliver that service. For years, the department had been plagued with reports of poor service, excessive losses, damaged goods and high claims costs to the government.

Now, more than three years and several studies later, transportation officials are pulling together the best qualities of the various studies to revamp its shipping procedures.

Recommended changes include a new process in which servicemembers would deal directly with the shipper for claims for lost, destroyed or damaged household goods, with hopes of cutting down the time for solution from about 140 days to 30 days; use performance-based service contracts, instead of awarding contracts to the lowest bidder, to improve the generally low quality of service; and upgrading computerized tracking systems.

“The recommendations in DOD’s report to Congress have the potential to resolve several long-standing problems found in the current personal property program,” reads a portion of the report.

The changes won’t be in effect until at least fiscal 2006.

However, GAO auditors are wary of the department’s increased cost estimate, and said the forecasted 13 percent jump is too low, Gist said.

“One concern we had with the results of the current evaluation was the increase of 13 percent in costs to implement the new changes,” he said.

“We think they might actually be higher … and think the DOD needs to provide a broader range” of estimates and firmer data to back them up, he said.

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