WASHINGTON-The rollout of the TWIC program is starting to resemble the song "Hotel California" by the Eagles-you can check out any time you like, but you may never leave.
TWIC, which stands for Transportation Workers Identification Credential, was created with all the good intentions Congress could muster. Mandated by Congress in the 2002 Maritime Transportation Security Act in the months following 9/11, it was designed to check backgrounds of as many as 725,000 airport workers, truck drivers, merchant seafarers and others needing unescorted access to transportation facilities like ships, ports, and runways.
But five years and countless deadlines later, only two things are certain: The program will be more costly than expected, and nobody is certain when workers will actually receive their cards.
Meanwhile, shipper interests fear that they will be the ones who will eventually pay these higher costs. The other issue that draws shipper concern is that ultimately there will not be just one TWIC, but rather one for port workers, another for rail workers, another for truckers, and so forth.
Such complexity might also further inject confusion, which could affect shippers with delays at ports and truck terminals.
"It's part of a larger picture that will drive up carrier costs," says John Cutler, general counsel for NASSTRAC. "Economic regulation recedes but health, safety, environmental, and security regulation have been on the increase."
NASSTRAC supports most of these regulatory initiatives, but it wants them to be cost-effective and consistent with the efficient movement of freight. There are ways to achieve goals that shippers and carriers can live with that are better than originally proposed.
"We just want people to get it right-get it so it's efficient and effective," says John Ficker, president of the National Industrial Transportation League. "The concept of TWIC is valid and valuable to protect our country. The system should work. However, it needs to be developed to be so it provides needed information to all the parties involved," Ficker adds.
Last month, Kip Hawley, head of the Transportation Security Administration, told Congress that it's doubtful whether the latest TWIC deadline will be met.
The SAFE Port Act of 2006 requires implementation of the card at 10 high-risk seaports by July 1. Although Hawley says "April is too soon to give up on a July deadline," few in Washington are counting on TSA to throw a "Hail Mary" pass at this stage of the game.
Even Hawley sounded like he's asking for more time: "If it's a choice between meeting that deadline and program integrity, we will choose the latter."
The latest delays, said Hawley, are due to making the card to conform to new federal guidelines for secure identification cards and the testing of the card to make sure that it works with other Homeland Security Department screening programs. "All the internal parts must work together," he says.
The American Waterways Operators, which represents the barge and tugboat industry, is worried the TWIC process will be so complex that it could become a barrier to entry into the maritime industry for new hires-thus exacerbating the current labor shortage in maritime. Other unions are concerned about TWIC's cost, estimated at $150 but rising. Ed Wytkind, president of the Transportation Trades Division of the AFL-CIO, has blasted the program, calling it a "glorified flash pass."
It's an expensive flash pass, too. The first pilot cost $100 million and TWIC produced only 1,700 cards-or $60,000 per card. Enrollment in TWIC will not start until all processing system tests are done, Hawley says, further jeopardizing the July 1 deadline.