New law reduces TWIC visits, calls for NMC medical-program review

Soon mariners will be able to get their Transportation Worker Identification Credential with only one visit to a TWIC center.

That’s one of the major changes that mariners will see from the passage of the Coast Guard Reauthorization Act in December 2012.

The new law streamlines the current process under which 2 million transportation industry workers must make two trips to a TWIC enrollment center to pick up and then activate their TWIC card.

The law gives the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) 270 days to implement the new OneVisit TWIC program.

To start the transition, TSA will develop an initial proof-of-concept program in Alaska to test the new system, said Lorie Dankers, a spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security.

“Following evaluation of the Alaska One Visit solution, TSA will implement this program nationwide,” Dankers said.

TSA will provide more information in the coming months as the pilot program is underway and plans for deploying OneVisit are finalized.

The change, long sought after by the transportation industry, was roundly applauded.

“We’ve always said the two-visit process was a needless step,” said Craig Montesano, director of legislative affairs for American Waterways Operators, which has 350 member companies. “This was a major win for maritime workers.”

Under the new law the Coast Guard has authority to extend mariners’ medical certificates up to one year in case of a processing backlog or in response to a national emergency or natural disaster. Mariners have faced backlogs in appeals for denied renewals by medical reviewers at the National Maritime Center (NMC). A mariner can appeal that decision to the NMC, but subsequent appeals are handled at the Mariner Credentialing Program Policy Division of the Coast Guard’s Office of Commercial Vessel Compliance.

The backlogs that plagued the medical review process are gone, according to Lt. Paul D. Rhynard, a Coast Guard spokesman. Mariners who need an extension can apply for one or it will be issued automatically during the appeal process.

“At present, we extend credentials for medical and other evaluations if the delay is due to an ‘appeals’ backlog or when a mariner has made timely application and the CG has been unable to issue the credential before expiration,” Rhynard said.

Rhynard estimated about 20 percent of mariners have medical issues that could cause renewal delays.

Mark Grossetti, a Framingham, Mass.-based consultant who helps mariners renew their licenses, agrees that the Coast Guard does not have backlog of medical evaluations. He said mariners with known medical conditions should not wait until the last minute to renew their licenses.

The law calls for a review of the mariners’ medical evaluation program and how it compares to similar programs for truck drivers and pilots, and the impact of the 2012 amendments to the Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping on the Coast Guard’s merchant mariner medical evaluation program.

Greater transparency for Jones Act waivers is also part of the Coast Guard law. Under the Jones Act, cargo moving between U.S. ports must be carried on U.S.-flag ships. Prior to a Jones Act waiver being granted, the Maritime Administration (MarAd) must identify actions to enable a U.S.-flag vessel to meet “national defense requirements” in transporting cargo.

A notice of determination for each waiver application must be published on the Department of Transportation website within 48 hours after a determination is made. Also, Congress must be notified of any waiver and the reason for granting the waiver. Recent Jones Act waivers have been granted for emergency response, such as shipping gasoline-production supplies into the northeast in the wake of Superstorm Sandy.

The new measures were a response to the nearly 50 Jones Act waivers granted in 2011 during the Strategic Petroleum Reserve drawdown, the American Maritime Partnership (AMP), a Washington, D.C.-based industry organization that supports the Jones Act, said in an e-mail message. AMP said that was the most waivers granted in the history of the Jones Act.

“We strongly support the requirements in the Coast Guard bill and recent appropriations bill to ensure federal agencies adhere to federal law that requires the use of American ships first,” the AMP said.

The U.S. shipping industry did not object to the few Jones Act waivers granted in the wake of the Sandy storm due to the overwhelming need for emergency response.

The new law attempts to boost short-sea shipping in two ways. First, the Department of Transportation’s short-sea transportation program expands from solely a program to mitigate landside congestion to include the promotion of short-sea shipping and uses of U.S.-flag vessels.

A second provision calls for MarAd to study the benefits of container-on-barge transportation for short-sea shipping. The assessment will include a look at the environmental benefits of increasing container-on-barge shipping, the regional differences in the use of short-sea shipping, and a recommendation for a plan to increase the potential for use of container-on-barge transportation. No budget was set for the study, which is due in June 2013.

By Professional Mariner Staff