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Do maritime safety 'smart cards' defy common sense?

Even slow tourist boats and delivery people will need Transportation Worker Identification Credential cards to use U.S. docks. Some complain that they're unnecessary, too expensive and hard to get.

March 22, 2009|Bob Drogin

OXFORD, MD. — As owners of one of the oldest ferry services in America, Tom and Judy Bixler steer their craft across the narrow Tred Avon River dozens of times each summer day to link two sleepy Chesapeake Bay towns known for crabs, not jihadists.

"The ferry goes pretty slowly," Judy Bixler said of the seasonal service, which dates back to 1683. "It's not like someone could commandeer it and go anywhere."

But under a little-known domestic security program, the Bixlers and about 1.2 million other Americans and qualified visa holders must pay as much as $132.50 each to obtain a high-tech government ID card that certifies they are not maritime terrorists.

To get the Transportation Worker Identification Credential, or TWIC, each applicant undergoes a security threat assessment. Fingerprints and other details are checked against lists of known or suspected terrorists, major criminals and immigration violators. The card is valid for five years.

"We see this as quite a big step forward in terms of security," said Maurine Fanguy, TWIC director at the Transportation Security Administration, which runs the program along with the U.S. Coast Guard.

Critics, however, call it a waste of resources and a bureaucratic morass. The requirement has drawn the most ridicule for netting bait salespeople, charter fishing boat skippers and others who don't enter military bases, carry nuclear materials or otherwise pose an obvious threat to national security.

Congress mandated the program to tighten security around the nation's ports. An 18-month registration drive is heading toward its final deadlines and largest ports: The new IDs will be required in New York harbor on Monday and in Houston, Los Angeles and Long Beach on April 14.

After that, longshoremen, mariners, ships' crews, truck drivers, vendors and other dockworkers must carry the card -- or get an approved escort -- to legally enter 3,200 U.S. maritime facilities from Guam to Miami and to work on any of about 10,000 licensed vessels, including the Bixlers' ferry.

Homeland Security Department officials say the TWIC is the most comprehensive biometric smart card program in the world. Each card carries a chip with an encrypted scan of the holder's 10 fingerprints to confirm his or her identity.

But although the cards are mandatory, devices to check a person's fingerprints against the data on the card are not yet required. A pilot project and testing of prototype technology is expected to last all year.

"Right now, readers are optional for ports," Fanguy said.

Instead, Coast Guard officers are running spot checks of ID cards at terminals and wharves. They are already investigating several cases of alleged bribery and fraud -- including one in which a dockworker is suspected of pasting a copy of a friend's TWIC onto his Safeway grocery club card.

Riverfront refineries in Louisiana last month reported that they turned away hundreds of contract workers who didn't have the new cards, but disruptions elsewhere have been relatively minor during the rollout, officials said.

"We're seeing most ports are now posting 'No TWIC, No Entry' signs," said Lisa Novak, a Coast Guard spokeswoman. "So word is getting out."

Indeed, word has reached some who aren't normally considered dockworkers.

"Pepsi drivers are getting TWICs if they deliver to the port," said Mark Bobal, a Coast Guard specialist on passenger vessel safety for the Great Lakes region. In Duluth, Minn., "taxi drivers got the card to pick up crews off the ships."

More than 54,000 people have obtained cards in Los Angeles and Long Beach, records show, and thousands more are expected to enroll. Enrollment offices are open on Ocean Boulevard in Long Beach and on Terminal Island. A facility to activate the cards will open Monday across from the Queen Mary in Long Beach.

"I don't anticipate any significant problems come compliance time" on April 14, said Nico Melendez, a TSA spokesman in Los Angeles.

Some truck drivers, dockworkers and others, however, have complaints. They say that the application fee is too high, that computer crashes and other problems have caused frequent delays at enrollment offices, and that the card duplicates other required permits and licenses.

"It's outrageous," said Joe Rajkovacz, regulatory affairs specialist at the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Assn., which represents 160,000 truck drivers. "The whole thing is a joke."

Rajkovacz said truck drivers around Kansas City, Mo., where his group is based, had to apply for their ID cards in a downtown office tower. "You couldn't park a truck anywhere nearby," he said.

Longshoremen in San Francisco have voiced similar frustrations.

"To put the enrollment office for dockworkers in the middle of the financial district was insane," said Craig Merrilees, spokesman for the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which represents 20,000 workers on the West Coast. "That alone shows it wasn't very customer-friendly."

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