A slow start for port IDs

Up to 25,000 workers are facing security checks to get the new cards

November 28, 2007|By Laura McCandlish | Laura McCandlish,SUN REPORTER

First, Ray Ascheman paid the $132.50 cost of the new security ID. Then the Minnesota trucker proved who he was with a driver's license and a second identity card. At last, he was fingerprinted, minus the messy ink, pressing his digits on a scanner plate.

It is not just the longshoremen along the waterfront who must register for a long-delayed federal ID required by the Transportation Security Administration in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Trucking farm equipment in and out of the Helen Delich Bentley Port of Baltimore, Ascheman is one of up to 25,000 workers at the port who will be subject to more thorough background checks as they apply for the new Transportation Worker Identification Credential, or TWIC, cards.

More than 1 million workers with unescorted access to the nation's 361 ports could register for the security clearance as the TSA phases in enrollment through September 2008 - more than four years after the program was to have started.

"This is one step toward commonality, taking the burden off private industry by having the government do the background checks," said Brian D. Kelley, the U.S. Coast Guard captain of the port of Baltimore. "We don't want it to be overly burdensome on commerce, but we cannot compromise on security."

TSA and port officials demonstrated how enrollment works at the TWIC processing center on Broening Highway yesterday. A couple of hundred longshoremen, contractors and truckers have applied for the cards since registration began last week. But the process - which includes an extensive background check - is expected to last months.

The cards will not be required to gain access to Baltimore's secure terminals and vessels until spring. The TSA is developing the fingerprint-reading technology, which might not be rolled out until 2009, said Lisa Himber, co-chairwoman of the TWIC working group for the National Maritime Security Committee. In the interim, the Coast Guard will inspect the cards, occasionally performing spot checks with scanners.

"We're been looking forward to this for a long time, but there are still a lot of questions about how we're going to be able to effectively implement it," said Himber, vice president of the Maritime Exchange for the Delaware River and Bay in Philadelphia.

For years, technical and bureaucratic hurdles have held up the TWIC cards, which were to be issued in 2004. In addition to a bar code, photo and magnetic strip, the cards have fingerprint data encrypted in a gold chip. But the readers required to scan that data are being redesigned to allow for a quick swipe. Cards had to be inserted into the original scanners, which would be too time-consuming, Himber said.

Edward Wytkind, president of the AFL-CIO's Transportation Trades Department, criticized the TSA for the time lag: "The way that they manage the procurement of technology is somewhat laughable," he said.

The cost and rigorous background checks required by the new cards place an unfair burden on port workers, Wytkind added. Leaders of Baltimore's Local 333 of the International Longshoremen's Association worry that their members with criminal records could lose their jobs under the anti-terrorism effort.

"The waterfront has traditionally been a place where those who have not had a stellar record could have a second chance at life," said John Blom, vice president of Local 333. "People should not be barred if they've served their time."

Conviction or incarceration for crimes unrelated to national security, such as robbery, unlawful possession of a firearm or rape, could bar a worker from receiving a TWIC card. The TSA and Lockheed Martin Corp., which secured the initial $70 million contract to run the TWIC enrollment, said a flexible appeals and waiver process is available to those whose applications are rejected.

"If somebody gets a disqualifying letter from us, call us back," said Maurine Fanguy, who manages the TWIC program for the Transportation Security Administration. "It's not our intention to keep people from going to work. It's to keep the terrorists out."

Blom and Local 333 President Kermit Bowling said they hope the Steamship Trade Association will cover the $132.50 TWIC cost for each Baltimore longshoreman. Cards are good for five years.

The longshoremen's union is picking up the tab at the port of Wilmington in Delaware, where TWIC enrollment began Oct. 16, Bowling said.

But as a self-employed trucker, Ascheman, 56, had to pay for his card yesterday. He said that's one more thing to worry about, in addition to soaring fuel costs. "It's just an expense," Ascheman said.

Rick Goulet, 33, another driver who works for Wagner Trucking in Minnesota, said his employer would pay for his card.

"It's just a waste of time and money," Goulet said after registering at the Baltimore TWIC office. "I'm not worried [about safety]. I've been coming here for years."

laura.mccandlish@baltsun.com

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