From staff and wire reports
Truck drivers, longshoremen and mariners will have to pay up to $159 for a high-tech identity card that will grant them access to U.S. ports.
Groups representing truckers and longshoremen said the fee is too high and will force some workers especially truck drivers to quit their jobs.
Some workers will have to buy the cards as soon as March. But a time has not been specified for port operators and ship owners to buy the equipment that reads the cards, according to a rule announced Wednesday by the Homeland Security Department.
The agencies issuing the cards the Coast Guard and Transportation Security Administration still have to test the card readers and decide on specifications.
TSA chief Kip Hawley said the government's main interest is port security. Until card readers are installed, Coast Guard patrols will conduct random checks of the cards with handheld devices at ports, he said.
Todd Spencer, executive vice president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association in Grain Valley, Mo., described the fees as "really high" for a program "that isn't even functional." The group represents 148,000 drivers in an industry where turnover averages 120 percent a year, Spencer said.
"It's going to be another reason that drivers are simply going to say,Phooey, I'm not going to get any of it,'" Spencer said.
At the Port of Hueneme, an official said thousands of workers including many who are there only occasionally probably will have to pay the card fee.
"We're looking at all the truckers. You may have a trucker who comes here only every other month, but he'll need a card because this has to be industrywide," said Will Berg, marketing director for the Oxnard Harbor District, which operates the port.
Proposals for requiring a forgery-proof port workers' ID card have been discussed for about three years by government agencies, labor unions, shipping companies, commercial shipping ports and others, Berg said Wednesday.
Port Hueneme officials, he said, had not yet seen the newly adopted rule and are uncertain of its impact.
Some 1 million metric tons of cargo, including more than 240,000 imported cars and trucks, pass through the port annually. The Port of Hueneme is the West Coast's biggest importer of bananas, largest exporter of citrus fruit and the only deep water port between Los Angeles and the Bay Area.
A total of about 300 longshore workers handle cargo at the port, about half of them members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 46, said Larry Carlton, the local's secretary-treasurer. They aren't happy with the fee, but they've been hearing about it for years and most are resigned to paying it.
"We're not going to have too much choice in the matter when it happens," Carlton said. "It's one of those things that sometimes whether you like it or not you pay it."
The Coast Guard already conducts some cargo inspections at the port, said Petty Officer Daniel Aurellas of the Channel Islands Harbor Station.
Usually, Santa Barbara-based Coast Guard Marine Safety Detachment crews are in charge of the inspections. Aurellas said he did not know whether they have portable devices that would read the high-tech cards. The Santa Barbara group could not be reached for comment.
The cards were first ordered by Congress in 2002 as a way to strengthen security at seaports, considered vulnerable to terrorist attacks.
The project stalled, however. Congress passed a port security bill in October that included a requirement that rules for the new card be written by Jan. 1, 2007.
The Transportation Workers Identity Credential will be issued initially to 750,000 port workers who pass government background checks.
The card will contain the holder's photograph and name, an expiration date and a serial number. An integrated circuit chip will store the holder's fingerprint template, a PIN chosen by the individual and unique identifying information.
Hawley said the fee was reasonable for a card that is good for five years and includes high-tech identification verification and a security threat assessment. Drivers who have had background checks, either because they carry hazardous material or cross the border, will pay less, he said.
"It's pretty hard to say,I can't afford $30 a year for a professional credential,'" Hawley said.
Kevin Hayes, vice president for Long Beach Container Terminal Inc., at the Port of Los Angeles/Long Beach, said the program could make ports more efficient.
"As a uniform credential, it will speed things up because there will be a lot less thinking involved eventually," he said.
Ultimately, as many as 6 million transportation workers in rail yards, airports and seaports will have to buy the card to gain access to secure areas.
Last April, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff announced that seaport workers would be checked for links to terrorism and to ensure they are legal U.S. residents. Yet only port workers and longshoremen have been checked so far.