U.S. ports received an early Christmas present this year. On Dec. 20, Congress passed a fiscal 2008 spending package that includes $400 million for the Port Security Grant (PSG) program—$80 million more than the ports received in 2007. The news came as a welcome surprise. Earlier reports had indicated that port security grants would likely be eliminated altogether from the 2008 budget.
Port officials had been particularly concerned that the loss of federal funding for security programs would slow implementation of the federally mandated Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC) program. That program requires individuals who have unescorted access to secure areas of port facilities and ships to undergo a full background check and fingerprinting to verify that they are not security threats. TWIC credentials are stored on biometric identification cards that include detailed information about the holders. Cardholders will be required to scan their cards each time they enter a port facility.
Instead of losing out, U.S. ports now expect to receive the highest level of security-program funding ever. The legislation includes $8.1 million to fully fund the Transportation Security Administration's pilot projects for biometric card readers, which are part of the TWIC program. Those projects will test the effectiveness of TWIC card readers at several ports before installation of the devices becomes mandatory at ports nationwide. Initially, ports had been expected to foot 25 percent of the bill for the pilots.
In addition to funding the TWIC tests, the budget includes $50 million for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Diesel Emissions Reduction Act (DERA). The DERA program provides federal grants for reducing emissions from older diesel engines, including those in trucks and cargo-handling equipment used at seaports. Last year's funding was only $12 million.
American Association of Port Authorities President Kurt Nagle said in an interview that the decision to fully fund the PSG program is evidence that Congress understands that U.S. ports are critical to the nation's infrastructure and must be protected. According to the AAPA, international trade accounts for more than one-quarter of the U.S. gross domestic product, and 99 percent of overseas trade volume moves through America's ports.
"With this trade and its share of our economy expected to continue to grow substantially, it is vital that ports be able to meet the multiple and at times competing challenges of investing in the infrastructure needed to accommodate increasing volumes safely and efficiently," Nagle said in a statement hailing the legislation's passage. "Our ports also proactively serve as stewards of the coastal environment and enhance security at critical junctions of our nation's international border. That's why the federal help provided to America's ports via the Port Security Grant program is so vital."
With funding now virtually assured, registration for the TWIC program rolls on. The TSA expects to have TWIC registration in place at nearly 50 ports by mid-January. At press time, 28 ports had already begun enrollment, and approximately 10,000 port workers had signed up for cards.
Some of the country's largest ports are getting on board. In early December, a group of 10 additional ports, including New York/New Jersey, became eligible to begin the enrollment process. The Los Angeles/Long Beach port complex, which is by far the largest port operation in the United States, was scheduled to begin on Dec. 12, and the Port of Virginia is expected to go live with registration sometime in the first quarter of 2008.
Joe Harris, media relations director for the Port of Virginia, says that his port is ready to begin enrollment once it gets the word from the federal government. "We've already installed the software and the system to read the cards," he says, noting that there are about 10,000 names in the Port of Virginia's database, from longshoremen to workers needing access to service vending machines. "We've been planning for this for two to three years. We're ready to go."
Individual ports are responsible for administering their own access controls. As for the timeline, the federal government will be issuing "drop-dead" enforcement dates this year. Those dates will be rolled out regionally, with 90 days' notice.
Fits and starts
Since enrollment began with the Port of Wilmington, Del., in mid-October, there have been sporadic glitches in the system, such as fingerprinting difficulties at some locations.
The TSA chalks that up to the scale of the initiative. Nationwide, more than 1 million workers will enroll for the TWIC program by the end of 2008. "Anytime you have a program the size of TWIC that is running throughout the nation there will be hurdles to overcome," says TSA spokesman Darrin Kayser. "But overall, enrollment is going very well."
Susan Monteverde, the AAPA's vice president of government relations, says that the federal government is processing registration cards far more quickly than expected. According to Kayser, the TSA is turning around enrollment applications and issuing cards in as little as five days, but in some cases it can take two weeks, depending on how thoroughly the applicant fills out the registration form.