The U.S. Census Bureau kicked off its public awareness campaign about the upcoming population count by launching the 2010 Census Portrait of America Road Tour in Times Square Monday, an event touted on NBC's "Today" show.

The tour is part of the bureau's effort to motivate people to fill out and mail back the census questionnaire - which is slated to arrive in household mailboxes March 15-17 - for the once-a-decade count of the nation's population required by the U.S. Constitution. People who don't mail back their 10-question census forms by mid-April can expect a visit by a census taker.

The Census Bureau said that during the next four months, the road tour "will be part of the largest civic outreach and awareness campaign in U.S. history." Officials said the traveling exhibits - a national trailer and 12 regional vans - are scheduled to visit more than 800 events around the nation, from the Super Bowl in Miami and other major sporting events to local parades and festivals.

Long Island is due to get a visit by the New York regional van - named Liberty - beginning in February, though dates and locations are being firmed up, said Veronica Lavarro, a spokeswoman for the New York Regional Census Office.

The bureau's national vehicle nicknamed Mail It Back - a 46-foot trailer - and the 12 regional cargo vans with 14-foot pull trailers contain such exhibits as a visual and interactive representation of the census form. Visitors can see a sample census form and learn how the information is collected. They can also contribute stories on videos and photos recorded at the road tour vehicles for the "Portrait of America" exhibit and explain, as the bureau put it, "why I count."

"The Road Tour seeks to educate and empower every person living across our country to take part and participate in the 2010 Census," Census Bureau director Robert Groves said in a statement.

Officials note the census is required by the Constitution to determine the reapportionment of congressional seats among the states. The resulting population numbers also affect how much of about $400 billion in federal aid is distributed annually to state, local and tribal governments.

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