The TWIC challenge

The TWIC challenge

With the start date coming up fast, federal officials are still facing questions about the new Transportation Worker Identification Credential. How to manage worker background checks? Who should have to carry a TWIC? Which technology to use? How to pay for it?

Another question that should have been asked five years ago: Do we really need a nationwide transportation worker ID card?

TWIC is a well-intentioned program that was conceived in the nervous months after 9/11. Congress authorized the transportation ID card as part of the Maritime Transportation Security Act of 2002. The goal was a single comprehensive, nationwide, interoperative, airtight program covering 750,000 port, highway, rail and vessel workers.

That's what Congress decreed, and that's what the Transportation Security Administration has been struggling to deliver.

In the real world, TWIC's progress has been anything but smooth. Congress, as it frequently does, authorized the program without full funding. Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Ky., chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee for homeland security, further held up funding to bully the TSA into producing the cards in his home district.

The TSA, meanwhile, has struggled to get its arms around development of the nationwide transport worker ID. The agency has wrestled with policy questions such as how extensive background checks should be, and technical issues such as how to design cards and automatic readers that work.

Among the things that have been learned is: (surprise) an ID card that's fine for an air-conditioned office lobby may not perform as well in the wet, dirt and salt air of a seaport, even if the card reader isn't fouled with chewing gum.

TWIC's operational and technical challenges have been complicated by the program's universal mandate. The program envisions biometric ID cards, with universal standards, for every transportation worker who needs regular access to secure port areas - longshoremen, truckers and others.

Instead of the all-encompassing, do-it-all-at-once program decreed by Congress, a sensible course might have been to take a risk-based approach - first identify the most serious security gaps in access control and focus on them, recognizing that some ports already had workable ID card systems in place. But it's too late for that. Congress is antsy and DHS doesn't want to have to explain another missed deadline. No one appears eager to revisit the MTSA to undo the TWIC provision.

So TWIC is on a fast track. This month the TSA published final rules for TWIC cards. The agency plans to issue final specifications for a TWIC reader by Feb. 28, as Congress ordered, and to begin a pilot program at 10 ports by April 13.

Like it or not, TWIC is coming. The challenge now for the TSA and Coast Guard - and for the industry - is to make the program work.