The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and Coast Guard are finalizing test plans for upcoming pilot projects that will use biometric smart card readers to control worker access to secure areas of the nation’s ports under the Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC) program, a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) official told Congress last week.

So far the TWIC program has five partners for the card reader tests, including the port authorities for Los Angeles and Long Beach in California, Brownsville in Texas, and New York/New Jersey, Maurine Fanguy, TSA’s TWIC program director, told the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. The other participant is Watermark Cruises which is based in Annapolis, Md., she said.

The program continues to seek additional participants, Fanguy said.

“Our objective is to include pilot test participants that are representative of a variety of facility vessels which operate in a variety of geographic locations and environmental conditions,” she said in her prepared remarks. “There appears to be sufficient interest from the maritime community to achieve this objective.”

The card reader technology is critical to making sure TWIC is effective.

Moreover, the TSA needs to make sure the access control pilot technologies “work effectively in the maritime environment before facilities and vessels will be required to implement them,” Stephen Caldwell, director of homeland security and justice issues for the Government Accountability Office, said in his prepared testimony to the Senate committee.

Earlier this week TSA announced that TWIC enrollments for port workers in Wilmington, Del., will begin in mid-October (Defense Daily, Oct. 4). Next month enrollments will begin at 11 more ports. The enrollment process will require applicants to submit biographic data as well as 10 fingerprints and a digital facial photograph. That information will be used for background investigations and checks against terror watch lists. TSA estimates that it will take most workers about 10 days to receive their TWIC cards once they’ve enrolled.

Until reader technology is in place, the TWIC cards will serve as typical flash passes for workers, longshoremen and others to get around ports. However, Coast Guard personnel will occasionally use handheld readers to conduct spot checks on workers to validate their TWIC cards.

Fanguy said that in the upcoming pilots the interface between the smart cards and the readers will be tested under various conditions to assess the impact of the program on port operations.

“Through the pilot tests, we will investigate the impacts of requiring biometric technology, and operational impacts on facilities and vessels of various size, type, and location,” she said. “As the program proceeds, the pilots will inform the TWIC reader rulemaking process and ultimately result in final regulations that require the deployment of transportation security card readers consistent with the findings of the pilot program.”

Last month TSA published new technical specifications for TWIC readers. Fanguy said that when operational, workers typically will not have to use a personal identification number before using a fingerprint to gain access at a control point unless owners and operators of a particular port choose to use contact readers.

The upcoming pilots will not be without costs. Anthony Coscia, chairman of the Port Authority of New York/New Jersey, told the Senate panel that DHS hasn’t funded the testing. Instead, the port authorities and vessel operators will be using a portion of their federal grant dollars received in FY ’06 and FY ’07 to test the card readers.

“The federal grant monies, however, require a 25 percent cash match,” Coscia noted. The grant money and matching contributions won’t be recoverable, he added.

Coscia said the pilot projects will be disruptive, at least initially, to port and vessel operations. Therefore, he said, these disruptions should be considered as the port’s “in-kind” contributions for the pilots, waiving the need for the 25 percent match. The ports have already made a request from Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff for the cash waiver, he added.