Truck drivers deplore port fee

Security measures require paying for multiple credentials

January 05, 2007|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,Sun reporter

The nation's truckers undergo federal background checks and must pay for separate licenses to haul materials for the U.S. Defense and Energy departments, to drive across the border and to carry hazardous materials. And come March, if they pick up goods at a seaport, they must obtain another credential that may cost nearly $160, according to rules announced this week.

The Transportation Worker Identification Credential, or TWIC, is the government's latest layer of security since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. It aims to keep terrorists from bringing in weapons of mass destruction by infiltrating a work force of about 750,000 that unloads cargo, manages stevedoring companies or drives trucks in and out of the ports.

The fees paid by workers are expected to cover the entire tracking system, from enrollment and management to the production of the cards storing a holder's fingerprints.

The cost may be a burden to some of the lowest-paid workers on the waterfront. But some labor groups say it's those who get behind the wheel of the big rigs to bring consumers food, electronics and other goods who will feel the pinch the hardest because they need so many cards.

The cards will be good for five years, and will cost an estimated $139 to $159, or up to $31.80 a year. That will make it more expensive than the other transportation cards and even a passport. It uses the latest "biometric" technology, in this case embedded fingerprints.

"The system doesn't impact everyone evenly," said Todd Spencer, executive vice president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, which represents about 148,000 drivers.

"The problem with the system they've set up for some truck drivers means this can actually be the fifth background check the government requires that they will go through to haul cargo." Spencer said. "We think it's ludicrous."

So does Dennis Miedusiewski, a Baltimore trucker and trucking company owner. He has permission to carry hazardous materials and will have to go through another application to enter the port. And he and the owners of 200 to 300 other companies that service the Helen Delich Bentley Port of Baltimore will have to decide if they can afford to subsidize the drivers' credentials. An estimated 20,000 workers at the port will need the cards.

His company, Den-El Transfer Inc., has 15 drivers and is absorbing higher fuel and toll costs now. The new card will be another cost he can't pass on to customers in the competitive industry.

"I've been fingerprinted to get my hazmat endorsement. And last summer, I looked into becoming a drivers' [education] instructor and got checked," he said. "Do I really have to get another check?"

The Transportation Security Administration, which will issue the new cards, said workers would undergo only one federal background check, although they will still have to pay a discounted fee for each card.

The government will eventually require one credential for all those in need of federal security clearance, but that system is an enormous undertaking and it's unclear when it will happen. In the meantime, TSA was looking for a way to get the port credentials, already well past its congressionally mandated delivery date, in workers' hands. They hope to do that in 18 months, and then enroll other transportation workers, such as airport and rail workers, in the system.

The cards will hold information about the workers, as well as their fingerprints and pictures. Workers would have their cards or fingerprints read by an electronic device that is still under development. That would allow security officers to see on their computer screens if the cardholder is indeed the person seeking to enter the port. Until the electronic readers are available, security officers will only be able to look at the card to screen workers.

"We're building on the systems that are already in place," said Darrin Kayser, a TSA spokes- man.

"States issue commercial driver's licenses, so hazardous-material endorsements became part of that. TWIC is built on what ports have. Over time, we'll find ways to integrate the various credentials. For now we need to be able to ensure that individuals who are a threat cannot gain access to the ports."

That's not such a bad way to get some level of security in place, said Kenneth A. Gabriel, director of the University of Maryland Center for Integrated Security and Logistics and Center for Automatic Identification Research.

He said the port technology is not new or perfect. It may still be possible to forge cards. And with no electronic device to read the biometric element, the fingerprint is useless. Further, gaining multiple credentials is obviously frustrating.

"But you can't wait until the perfect solution arises because there would be no protection in the system while you're waiting," Gabriel said. "Put something in play and come back later and fix the holes. This certainly doesn't mean that we're done with the problem."

Not everyone is so sure that waiting would have been a bad idea. Edward Wytkind, executive director of the AFL-CIO's Transportation Trades Department, which represents longshoremen and drivers, said that because the ports can't read the stored information, that officials could have just done background checks and saved the workers money.

He called the credentials "glorified flashcards."

Wytkind added that, more importantly, if the government wants background checks and cards, it should pay.

"This is part of the war on terrorism, yet they are unwilling to pay for it," he said.

meredith.cohn@baltsun.com

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