All TWIC-ed up

All TWIC-ed up

The trade community can and should applaud the recently published notice of proposed rule-making from the Department of Homeland Security about the Transportation Worker Identification Credential, or TWIC. But it would be impossible to see only good coming out of this development, because if the government stumbles in implementing this bulky and ambitious national system, it could be a disaster for logistics.

The May 22 unveiling of the proposed TWIC rule was positive in one very important respect: It showed that the Bush administration grasped a key point about the DP World fiasco, namely that the public is screaming out for progress on port security. The TWIC rule, according to some in Washington, was not scheduled to be unveiled until July at the earliest, and it seems clear that the accelerated schedule was part of the fallout from the Dubai episode.

But in a sense, that doesn't even matter. The important thing is that, by acting, the government is starting the process of creating in the public's mind a sense that progress is being made in the area of port security, reducing the likelihood of another psychopathic response to the next potential crisis. That explains the positive reaction that has greeted the arrival of the TWIC rule. "It's long overdue in our opinion, and we're glad that if anything good has come out of the Dubai Ports debacle, this is one thing that's a positive," said Paul Kelly, senior vice president for government affairs at the Retail Industry Leaders Association.

Where the trade community should be wary of the TWIC is not in its existence, but in how it is carried out. The program is designed to reduce the risks of terrorism by allowing only credentialed individuals onto the grounds of transportation facilities such as seaport marine terminals.

That seems well-intentioned enough, but questions arise almost immediately, particularly concerning how this could affect the supply of port labor. One group the rule will apply to is longshoremen. Longshore unions have complained loudly about the possibility that some of their members will be disqualified because of a past felony conviction when the record also shows they've paid their debt to society. They're not wrong. The way the rule reads, that is possible if someone has been convicted of a felony in the past seven years. But given the six-figure incomes earned by many dockworkers in the U.S., there will be a long line of people waiting to replace any dockworker denied a TWIC, at least at container terminals.

The real issue is port truckers. There are two reasons for this concern. One involves immigration. Putting aside the politics of the national immigration debate, it's pretty clear from the proposed rule that you won't be able to get a TWIC unless you are legally allowed to work in the U.S. "You have to have the legal ability to work here to get a TWIC card," said Paul Heylman, a Washington attorney specializing in port labor. "There may be issues in some of the driver communities in some of the ports."

The other issue is technical but scary in its implications. Unless the credentials of truckers can be verified with the same ease and speed that trucks are cleared in modern marine terminals today, the potential exists for a terminal gate bottleneck of catastrophic proportions. Given the rate of growth in U.S. marine terminals and the fact that the system is already severely strained, poor implementation of the TWIC program could be disastrous.

"How the card works in the context of truck movements is critical," said Robin Lanier, executive director of the Waterfront Coalition. "Does this mean every truck has to stop so someone can check the biometrics?"

Marine terminals sense the danger and are urging caution. Last week Tay Yoshitani, senior adviser for the National Association of Waterfront Employers, said at a public forum on TWIC that card readers in which the TWIC must be inserted into a slot, or ones that require the worker to enter a PIN number to be cleared, are greatly inferior to "contactless" readers that will hold up better in the rough-and-tumble environment of a marine terminal.

The group is recommending that a new prototype be successfully tested before the full system is rolled out nationally. "Faulty design or poor execution can be a disaster to our membership, our maritime industry, the national economy and international commerce," Yoshitani said.

Agreed. Nothing less is at stake.