Coast Guard finally sends TWIC reader rule to OMB

WASHINGTON - Just in time for the holidays, Uncle Sam is serving up its version of a gift to the maritime industry. The Coast Guard this week sent the long-awaited proposed rule for TWIC readers to the Office of Management and the Budget for final review.

This is a significant and long-overdue step that moves the process closer to a finale after nearly three years of delays that has frustrated vessel operators and called into question the security value of this post-9/11 federal security program.

The Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) was sent to OMB on Nov. 16, and the agency has 90 days to act. If OMB proposes no changes, the reader rule could be published in the Federal Register around March 2013, according to Brian Vahey of the American Waterways Operators.

“The reader rulemaking has been a long time coming and we’re anxious to see what it says,” Vahey said. “The ANPRM was OK, but had some areas where it can definitely be improved, and we hope the Coast Guard has done so.”

The Coast Guard will hold at least two public meetings on the NPRM, one on the East Coast and another on the West Coast, with additional meetings elsewhere possible. “There should be a lot of opportunities for industry to express their point of view,” Vahey said.

The TWIC program continues to be unpopular with the maritime industry. Several maritime unions advocate its repeal. Recently, the Passenger Vessel Association called on Congress to re-evaluate the program because it has been “inefficient in promoting security and highly burdensome to passenger vessel operators and U.S. mariners.”

PVA said three of its companies participated in a pilot program to test the readers, which are supposed to verify the validity of TWIC credentials. The passenger vessel operators reported that they derived no security enhancements from TWIC readers.

Congress is also unhappy. Enacted in 2002, the program continues to spend “hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars,” Rep. John Mica, R-FL, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said at a recent congressional hearing. Delays in publishing the reader rule have cost taxpayers $3.2 billion and left the nation’s ports unsecured, he said.