Contract bid could rejuvenate stalled plan to issue security credentials at ports and other hubs.
Lisa B. Himber has 10 employees in her Philadelphia office at the Maritime Exchange, a trade association that represents ports and other industry along the Delaware River and Bay. Last year, her staffers were among the first to receive new, tamperproof access cards as part of a Transportation Security Administration pilot program.
But the recipients, she says, had to keep returning them because the cards often didn't work. "At least four of the  had to go back five or six times," says Himber, the Maritime Exchange's vice president. "I thought that was an amazing number of errors."
Welcome to the world of the Transportation Worker Identification Credential, a program intended to put a single universal access card containing biometric information into the hands of workers at ports and other sensitive transportation areas. Industry and Congress have been increasingly critical of delays and other problems, and even some Homeland Security Department insiders openly have wondered why a program begun shortly after 9/11 has yet to produce more than a few thousand cards. The controversy over the possible sale of a harbor operations company to Dubai Ports World in February thrust that criticism into the spotlight.
Despite the slow ramp-up and rumors that TSA would take a smaller role in the program, the agency apparently will continue to manage TWIC, albeit under a contracting structure that places a greater burden on industry than more conventional procurement arrangements.
With congressional pressure mounting, TSA published a solicitation on March 31 for a company to help implement the ID program nationwide. The agency was rumored to be considering a federated model for the program: TSA would handle the background checks on applicants and issue specifications, but it would leave production of the cards up to other entities. (Presumably, identity management firms could pitch their services to ports and other organizations in need of biometric cards.) But TSA's solicitation calls for a nationwide contract to vet card applicants, field a credential for 850,000 port workers, and operate and maintain the system. Procurement documents online indicate the agency is seeking a single vendor.
Industry representatives seem to agree with that approach. "Some agencies raised that question, whether TSA should actually manage the project or just issue the regulation and have each port issue the cards," Himber says. "Industry very, very strongly felt that TSA's got to manage the project."
Another factor that might have influenced TSA's direction: House appropriators have mandated that the credentials be produced at an existing government-owned card production facility.
The TWIC contract will be fee-based, which could mean that the selected firm will design the cards and system and collect revenue from users on its own. McLean, Va.-based BearingPoint received more than $24 million for its work on a prototype during the last phase of the program. TSA has not spent all of the $70 million appropriated previously, and it received no direct appropriations for the ID program in fiscal 2006.
Many credit the Dubai Ports controversy and resulting pressure from lawmakers for placing a higher priority on TWIC within Homeland Security. And the accelerated timeline seems to be genuine. The Coast Guard had begun renting space in four locations nationwide for public meetings to receive comments on the rule during the first days of May.
TSA officials say they are trying to launch the program in the spring of 2007 or sooner. DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff has said publicly that he plans to have cards in the hands of port workers this year.
"The Dubai deal put port security back on the radar screen for Congress, which has prompted DHS to make a lot of new promises about TWIC," says Jeremy Grant, a senior vice president at the Washington-based investment firm Stanford Washington Research Group, and a former vice president at MAXIMUS, a Reston, Va., identity management firm that worked on TWIC. "They ought to be able to start issuing the first cards by the end of this year. But 850,000? The logistics involved with enrolling so many people, vetting them and creating the cards make it impossible."
The maritime industry continues to wait anxiously. Once envisioned as issuing 200,000 cards, the prototype phase resulted in only about 4,000 credentials at 26 locations in Los Angeles; Long Beach, Calif.; Philadelphia; Wilmington, Del.; and in Florida.
TSA officials originally said Florida would issue 70,000 to 80,000 cards to workers at its 14 ports. But Mike Rubin, vice president of the Florida Ports Council in Tallahassee, says only a couple of hundred were produced, and TSA stopped putting out cards in December. The agency's card readers and computer equipment sit unused at the stations, he says. Florida likely will move forward in creating its own cards, hoping that TSA will grandfather them into its TWIC solution, Rubin says. In the meantime, many Florida ports are issuing plastic cards without biometrics.
In Delaware, Himber says, TSA ran out of money and shut down its ID operations on March 31 after issuing about 1,500 prototype credentials. As it awaits the outcome of the TWIC process, the port is issuing workers plastic cards without biometrics or security checks. Says Himber: "I don't see the Port of Wilmington in any different condition than any other port."