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Passports, answers in high demand

Times Staff Writers

Desperate to obtain their U.S. passports, world travelers have been flying to Seattle, where the passport office is considered one of the nation's most efficient. But even there, more than 110,000 backlogged applications are piled in closets, the supervisor's office and the break room.

Many won't be touched for months. Half of the staff is trying to help the crowds jamming the lobby and spilling out the door.

How did it get this bad?

Federal officials in Washington acknowledge that they failed to anticipate just how much the post-Sept. 11 travel regulations would fuel demand for passports; did not hire enough workers to handle the increase; and neglected to notice or react to signs early this spring of a burgeoning problem.

The State Department estimates that the number of Americans seeking passports this year will reach 17.5 million, up from 12 million in 2005 — the result of new rules requiring such documentation for air travelers returning from Mexico, Canada, Bermuda and the Caribbean. Applicants' average wait time has swelled from six weeks to 12 weeks or more.

For nearly two years, federal officials knew the revised rules were coming, along with a crush of applications. And Tuesday, during a packed subcommittee hearing on the passport backlog, senators assailed Maura Harty, assistant secretary of State for consular affairs.

"We want to know who is accountable, why this mess happened," said Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), the panel's chairman, who spent Monday with irate travelers in Tampa.

Acknowledging the department's miscalculation, Harty said that employees had been swamped by "a record-setting demand in a compressed period of time."

Some officials, however, have described the delays as a reasonable price to pay for added national security.

"Yes, there may be some delays involved and some personal inconvenience, but this effort is a righteous effort, and it will make our country more secure," Russ Knocke, chief spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, said last week.

But unsuspecting travelers like Brenda Newport of North Canton, Ohio, found the stress nearly too much to bear. Newport, after learning she had breast cancer, had been planning a dream trip with her sister to Scotland, but her sister's passport was held up for months. Passport workers said she would have to travel to Chicago and pay $60 for expedited processing. Instead, Newport's son called the local TV stations and Sen. George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio). Newport's sister received the document barely in time to catch her plane.

"It's disappointing it took 15 weeks and an act of a … senator to get that done," said Newport's son, Daniel Matea. "That's just ridiculous."

In a letter Monday, 56 senators called on Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to step in to resolve the passport problems before they worsened.

In an effort to ease the backlog, the State Department announced earlier this month that it would waive the new rules — which took effect in January — through Sept. 30 for travelers who already had applied for passports. Under current plans, the requirements for airline passengers will apply to travelers arriving by land and sea as well in January 2008.

The regulations grew out of recommendations made by the Sept. 11 commission, which in 2004 called for a standardized form of identification for all U.S. travelers to boost border security. In April 2005, the Homeland Security and State departments unveiled the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, which required passports, rather than simply driver's licenses or birth certificates, for travelers returning from nearby countries.

Almost immediately, congressional leaders voiced concern that Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff had set overly ambitious deadlines for the program. President Bush, who signed a raft of post-Sept. 11 security legislation into law, also questioned the plan, saying it could impede travel.

By last spring, skepticism had increased. A May 2006 report by the Government Accountability Office concluded that neither Homeland Security nor the State Department was fully prepared. "They have a long way to go to implement their proposed plans, and the time to get the job done is slipping by," the report said.

State Department officials disputed that finding, noting that they planned to hire 130 additional passport workers and to expand the number of locations that accept applications, mostly post offices, from 7,500 to 9,500.

Yet when the requirement took effect Jan. 23, a backlog began to develop almost instantly. Even as calls to Congress from irate travelers turned from a trickle to a stream over the next month, Chertoff reassured the Senate Homeland Security Committee that the initiative was working well.

"All the doom and gloom turned out not to come out," he said. "And that's because we stuck to the program."

But already the average turnaround time to process a passport fee had grown from 24 hours to three weeks, as 2.1 million applications arrived in January — 600,000 more than expected. Citicorp, which processes the fees under a contract with the Treasury Department, added 400 workers to its already expanded staff of 800 to clear the backlog.

Instead of fixing the problem, however, that sent a tidal wave of paperwork downstream. "They were not handing [the applications] over on time, and then they dumped them on us all at once" in May, said Janelle Hironimus, a State Department spokeswoman.

Sheryl Morrow, director for the revenue collection group at the Treasury Department's Financial Management Service, countered that the State Department was well-aware of the backlog. "They get daily reports from the bank. They knew what was coming," she said.

Analysts at the State Department initially forecast that passport applications would increase from 12 million to 15 million annually under the new system, then upped the projection in 2006 to 16 million. Those estimates, Harty said Tuesday, were based on a study by BearingPoint, a consulting firm in McLean, Va.

When a heavier volume of applications came in — at the current pace of 17.5 million annually — the system was temporarily swamped, said Ann Barrett, deputy assistant secretary of State for passport services. "None of us has a crystal ball," she said.

According to the National Federation of Federal Employees, which represents passport office workers, the department had planned to almost double the number of employees, from 480 to 945. But only 218 new workers had been hired since 2005, the union said.

Barrett disputed those numbers, saying her office hired more than 250 employees and never promised more.

Officials within the travel industry — beset for months by panicked vacationers — say the State Department's miscalculation was drastic. "Clearly, they didn't hire enough," said Rick Webster, chief Washington lobbyist for the Travel Industry Assn. of America. "They simply asked for too little in terms of resources. They admit that, but they almost talk about it as if it was a factor of degrees. But it was a bigger miss than that."

Barrett announced plans this month to hire 400 more workers by October at a cost of $37 million, but screening and training them could take several months.

In the meantime, travelers are turning to their representatives and senators, hoping their intervention can help.

The office of Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) has handled more than 1,500 such requests since January. "The most frustrating thing for the constituents we talk to is that they are doing what the government told them" to do, said Luke Friedrich, Coleman's spokesman. "They applied early, following the guidelines the government set out for getting their passports on time. And the government, for some reason, wasn't ready."

If they can get an appointment, travelers scheduled to leave within two weeks or who need a foreign visa — and who have hours to devote to standing in line — can bring their applications to one of 14 passport agencies around the country. Even then, delays abound.

Carmen Diaz of Germantown, Md., applied weeks ago for passports for herself, her son and her daughter, whose soccer team is traveling to Brazil. With a deadline approaching for obtaining visas, she gave up checking the status of their applications online and came to Washington on Friday.

"They couldn't help me, because I wasn't leaving in the next 24 hours and they were only helping people who were leaving the next day or over the weekend," she said.

After hours in line, she got an appointment for Tuesday. But because the passport agency could not find some of her paperwork, she had to redo her three applications — including making a trip out of state to get a copy of her son's birth certificate.

California, with a large concentration of naturalized U.S. citizens, has been one of the areas hit hardest. Some of the longest lines have been at passport agencies in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

In addition to the staffing issue, the State Department also has faced questions about the planned expansion of its passport facilities.

In advance of the stricter travel regulations, the department opened one new passport agency in Aurora, Colo., in August 2005 and one new processing center in Hot Springs, Ark., this March. The Hot Springs center is expected to handle 10 million passports a year; so far, Harty said, it has processed 150,000.

Once the passport requirements are extended to land and sea travel, the State Department expects to receive 26 million applications — a 50% increase over the 2007 projection.

Last week, the House and Senate inserted provisions into the Homeland Security budget that would postpone the passport requirement for land and sea travel from January 2008 to June 2009, and would require the department to demonstrate that it had a workable plan for processing passports on time. Another GAO report on the travel initiative is expected in August.

On Friday, Barrett came to the Capitol with Homeland Security officials to brief congressional staffers on the travel initiative's progress, saying her office was prepared to meet the original January 2008 deadline.

The staffers laughed.

-- Hennessy-Fiske reported from Washington and Pae from Los Angeles. Times staff writers Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar and Claudia Lauer in Washington contributed to this report. --


By the numbers

17.5 million Americans expected to seek passports this year, up from 12 million in 2005.

12 weeks Average wait, swelling from six weeks.

26 million Number of applications expected annually once the new passport requirements are extended to travel by land and sea.

Source: State Department, passport services

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