What elimination of 2nd TWIC visit means

WASHINGTON - Just a few weeks before Christmas, the lame duck Congress has presented a gift to the maritime community.

As one of the last pieces of legislation before adjourning for the year, lawmakers passed and sent to the president the 2013 Coast Guard Authorization bill, which would eliminate the inconvenient and costly second trip to the TWIC enrollment center.

The president is expected to sign the bill shortly.

The action – sought for more than a year by maritime groups like the American Waterways Operators – comes at a crucial time. Thousands of TWIC cards will expire over the next few months and two million more over the next three years.

Under current TSA rules, mariners would be required to make two trips to an enrollment center – one to apply for the TWIC and a second to pick up the credential, should they opt for a five-year extension. The TSA also offers a three-year extension that is handled by phone and requires only one trip to a center to pick up and activate the card.

Mariners and other transportation workers said the two-trip requirement was costly and unnecessary, especially if they live or work long distances from enrollment centers and work in jobs that require long trips away from home.

It’s not clear yet how mariners will receive their cards. Many are hoping that TSA will set up a system to put them in the mail. The legislation does not specify this, leaving it up to the Department of Homeland Security to figure out. In the past, TSA has maintained that the second trip was necessary to ensure that the person picking up the card is in fact the cardholder.

“When other secure identity documents, such as passports and merchant mariner credentials can be returned to qualified applicants by mail, transportation workers should not be required to make two trips to an enrollment center,” said Rep. Steve Scalice, R-La., who sponsored the reform as part of the Coast Guard bill.

“It’s time to modernize the TWIC program,” he added.

TWIC cards have been required since 2007 for anyone who needs to gain unescorted access to secure areas of maritime facilities and vessels for their jobs.

The program has been fraught with problems since the start, and has drawn fire from Congress, mariners and the transportation industry. Passage of this legislation underscores this disappointment and frustration.

“We now have a unified message from Congress that there are major aspects of the TWIC program that simply aren’t working for millions of men and women across the country,” said Brian Vahey of AWO’s legislative staff. “The bipartisan leadership from lawmakers in pushing this provision has been phenomenal.”

He said DHS has mobilized a multiple-department effort to review TWIC and officials are meeting with industry stakeholders.

The Coast Guard bill also extends the duration of medical certificates so that mariners can continue to work while the Coast Guard reduces its backlog of MMD applications.