Virginia Port Authority's Drive for Security

Mar. 9--PORTSMOUTH -- Entering the Virginia Port Authority's three marine cargo terminals soon will involve a technology similar to the Smart Tag toll collection system.

Officials say the new system will better secure the port. Even with such improvements, many in the maritime industry think the nation's 360 seaports remain unnecessarily vulnerable to attack because a national transportation worker identification card still has not been developed by the federal government, despite four years of efforts .

When the entry system debuts in about a month at Portsmouth Marine Terminal, truck drivers will proceed to an unmanned entry gate. There they will wave an identification card -- equipped with a tiny radio transmitter -- in front of a sensor outside their window. While the truck waits, the name of the driver and the trucking company will be compared quickly with a database of the roughly 14,000 active port IDs.

Search results will be routed to a Port Authority police officer in a control booth overlooking the gate. The officer will use a video camera to check whether the driver matches the picture of the person to whom the card was issued. Other cameras will record the identification number of the cargo container on the truck.

If everything checks out, the officer will raise a gate allowing the truck to proceed.

For exiting , drivers will have to be cleared again and cameras will ensure each is leaving with the proper container.

"This is on the cutting edge of security," said Ed Merkle, director of security for the Port Authority, which owns the region's three terminals.

Presently, truckers hand their badges to a police officer for inspection. However, there's no way of quickly checking whether the cards are valid or whether the truckers have the correct loads , Merkle said.

Few, if any, other ports have a system like the

"e-gates" that the Port Authority is installing, he said. The p orts of Los Angeles and Long Beach in California this month are unveiling a truck access system that also uses radio frequency identification tags. However, Merkle said the two systems are not the same.

The e-gates will be installed at Newport News Marine Terminal by early summer and Norfolk International Terminals by the end of the year, Merkle said. The project's estimated cost is $4.8 million, with the authority paying $2.7 million and federal grants covering the rest.

Despite such additional measures, the nation's ports still are not able to check the names of maritime workers against a federal terrorist watch list, and the majority of ports -- including Virginia's -- also don't have the authority to conduct criminal background checks. Those two missing pieces leave gaps in port defense systems, maritime security experts have said.

The Transportation Worker Identification Credential , authorized by Congress in 2002, would address those issues. It also would include a biometric identifier -- such as a fingerprint -- to ensure that people are who they say they are.

Those cards were to be rolled out in August 2004, but the Transportation Security Administration, which is developing them, now says the introduction is planned for spring 2007. The credentials would be for all workers in the transportation industry, including those with ports, railroads and trucking companies.

The slow progress has frustrated maritime officials.

"It continuously gets delayed," said Susan Monteverde, vice president of government relations for the American Association of Port Authorities. "It just doesn't seem to be a priority."

Port security came to the forefront recently with the political fire storm ignited by the sale of the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co. of England to Dubai Ports World, a state-owned company from the United Arab Emirates. Dubai Ports World would take over the management of terminals in six U.S. ports, including Baltimore and Miami.

Responding to c ongressional concerns about the credential program, the Government Accountability Office, Congress' nonpartisan research office, has launched a second audit of the program. The first, done in 2004, found problems with Transportation Security Administration management.

Transportation Security Administration spokeswoman Amy Kudwa attributed delays to the project's vast scope and to a presidential directive issued last year affecting the cards. About $70 million has been spent on the program so far.

"We're building this from the foundation upwards," Kudwa said. "It certainly has been a priority, but there are a number of groups that need to be involved in this process and we're working through that to make sure we're doing this the best way possible."

In the meantime, the Port Authority's new gate system will add another layer of security. It will enable the port police to spend more time focusing on anomalies at the gate and less time doing routine truck clearances, Merkle said. Trucks enter and exit the gates at the authority's three terminals about 21,000 times every week.

"It gets the noise out of the way so the officer is really focused on unusual occurrences," Merkle said, "which is what you want the officer to focus on."

The system may add an extra 10 to 12 seconds to the time it takes to be cleared for entry, but overall, truckers should spend less time at the gate because more lanes are being added, he said.

Before it takes effect, the Port Authority is combing through its list of truck drivers and issuing new identification cards to those who should have them.

"It's not bad," said Charles "Chick" Rosemond, a vice president with trucking company Wyatt Transfer Inc., of the new system. "The truckers will just work with the port."

[Virginian-Pilot, The (Norfolk, VA) (KRT) -- 03/10/06]

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