Extra $60 for Faster Passport Service Doesn't Cut Wait by Much

Katherine Estes, right, and Christina Bernal look over a passport application at the processing office in New Orleans, the country's third-largest center.
Katherine Estes, right, and Christina Bernal look over a passport application at the processing office in New Orleans, the country's third-largest center. (By Alex Brandon -- Associated Press)
By Stephen Barr
Friday, August 17, 2007

Overwhelmed by the public's demand for passports, the State Department yesterday announced that travelers paying an extra $60 for speedy processing of their passport applications should check the Internet to see how long they will have to wait.

The department, in a Federal Register notice, said it had changed the definition of "expedited passport processing" from three business days to a more accordion-like standard of "a number of business days."

Rather than process a passport within three days of receipt of an application, the State Department's Web site ( http://travel.state.gov) said it would take 10 days for internal processing.

That would put door-to-door expedited service at about three weeks, not much different than the two to three weeks applicants have been forced to wait for much of the summer after paying the expedited fee.

In past years, the department has been able to issue a routine passport in four to six weeks. With passports still in high demand, the wait for routine processing is 10 to 12 weeks, according to yesterday's Web notice.

While department officials said the Federal Register notice was intended to allow them to better advise applicants on what to expect and to reflect the realities of their workload, members of Congress took it as another sign that the State Department continues to struggle with how to speed up passport processing.

"This is a clear admission of failure and a decision not to solve the problem, leaving thousands of travelers in the lurch," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.).

"What color is the sky in their world?" Rep. Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio) said to the Associated Press. "I can't believe they're proposing a rule where they want to charge you the same amount, and in return, you're virtually guaranteed to get worse service."

Demand for passports soared at the beginning of the year as travelers sought to comply with a new border security law requiring passports for all U.S. citizens flying within the Western Hemisphere.

By June, nearly 3 million Americans were waiting for passports and many were calling members of Congress to complain that they were fearful of missing overseas trips. Officials plan to have the backlog whittled down by year's end and to get back to processing passports within six weeks.

The surge has disrupted some State Department offices, with employees being pulled off normal duties to process passports. Even U.S. Embassy staff members in London, Mexico City and New Delhi have been called on to help, the Financial Times reported.

To meet the cost of the extra demand, the department published a notice Wednesday saying that it would retain $20, instead of $6, from each passport fee collected. The change would not affect what citizens pay for passports ($97 for routine processing for applicants 16 and older, and $82 for those younger than 16). But the change reduces the flow of cash to the Treasury Department's general fund.

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