Agencies may miss deadlines on travel program

Although the Homeland Security and State departments have made important progress in implementing the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, the program's broad nature and complexity may prevent the agencies from meeting congressional deadlines, according to the Government Accountability Office.

In a recent report, GAO said there are no simple solutions or alternatives to providing quick and secure access at U.S. land border ports and urged the agencies to expedite their decision-making process if they are to meet Congress' January 2008 deadline.

'Achieving the intended security benefits of the Travel Initiative by the statutory milestone date, without simply requiring all travelers to carry a passport, appears in jeopardy, given the volume of work that remains,' GAO said.

Congress in 2004 required DHS and State to implement a plan by January 2008 that requires U.S., Canadian, Mexican and Bermudan citizens to carry passports or other forms of identification when entering the U.S. from North and South America.

Given the expense of passports for citizens who frequently cross the borders, DHS and State have investigated alternatives, such as a People Access Security Service (PASS) card, extended frequent traveler programs, or an enhanced driver's license with additional security features.

As the deadline approaches, GAO said the agencies, while making some progress, have not made critical decisions such as what kinds of documents would be required instead of a passport and how, if implemented, the PASS card system would be any less expensive.

And once the agencies make a determination, they then must craft an implementation plan, draft a budget, put together a public outreach campaign, coordinate with Canada and other countries, and train their own staff, the report said.

'Falling short in any of these areas may hinder the ability of the agencies to achieve their goal of improving security while facilitating commerce and tourism,' GAO said. 'According to DHS officials, they have formed working groups to take action in each of these areas, but much more work remains in developing plans and approaches that improve the likelihood of program success.'

State told GAO that while they generally agreed with the findings, they believe they have taken several steps to push the initiative. DHS officials did not have official comments, GAO said.

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