Money not available to secure the nation's ports, GAO says

Funding problems are shortchanging security programs at the nation's maritime ports, the General Accounting Office has told lawmakers.

'Effective maritime security requires the ability to put preventive systems, controls and infrastructure in place,' GAO said Friday in a letter to Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.). 'Funding is the most pressing challenge to accomplishing this task.'

The Homeland Security Department cannot adequately fund port security programs at the federal level, GAO said. The department recently wanted to divert $30 million from the Operation Safe Commerce pilot program for port security to cover a shortfall in airport security funding.

Meanwhile, state and local governments are facing huge budget deficits, and many companies are operating on narrow profit margins, the audit agency noted.

Hollings, ranking minority member of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, requested the information in the wake of a September hearing on transportation security.

GAO's Gerald L. Dillingham, director of Civil Aviation Issues, and Margaret Wrightson, director of Homeland Security and Justice Issues, sent the letter to Hollings.

They cited the Transportation Worker Identification Card and the Automated Identification System projects for seagoing vessels as examples of troubled programs.

DHS' Transportation Security Administration plans to issue 5 million to 6 million biometric TWIC cards each year, beginning next year and continuing through 2007.

'Although no national estimates of the cost are currently available, they are likely to be substantial,' GAO said. The Port of Los Angeles and Long Beach alone estimated that TWIC deployment would cost at least $45 million for equipment, readers, staff and other start-up costs. These expenses might be passed on to workers.

The AIS vessel ID system is required by the Maritime Transportation Safety Act and would provide information about a vessel's identity, position, speed and course to shore-based stations and other vessels.

Not only is the technology expensive for vessels, about $10,000 per ship, but it requires an extensive shore-based infrastructure, GAO said. Currently, only ports already equipped with Vessel Traffic Service systems'a network of video, radio, radar and other technologies used to guide vessels through ports'are prepared use AIS. Only 10 of the nation's 25 largest ports have this infrastructure, the letter said.

The Coast Guard has earmarked $40 million for fiscal 2004 for shore-based AIS equipment for these ports, but estimated it could cost three times that much to expand the system to other major ports.

'Where the money will come from to meet these funding needs is not clear,' GAO said. States are facing total budget deficits of $80 billion next year, and state and local governments already are making trade-offs between transportation security and other needs.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.


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