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Coleman says Minnesota needs its own passport processing office

Minnesota, as a major transportation hub by air worldwide and by vehicle to Canada, needs its own passport processing office, U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman said Wednesday.

The Bush administration announced that it will delay for at least six months a rule that Americans present passports when crossing the U.S. border by land or sea, originally slated to take effect Jan. 1.

Starting in January, land and sea travelers returning from Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean and Bermuda will be allowed to present a birth certificate and driver's license in lieu of a passport.

Starting next year, travelers also will no longer be able to make a verbal declaration of U.S citizenship to re-enter the country.

The modification is expected to last at least until the summer of 2008, when officials hope to require passports or similar documentation at all land and sea crossings.

The move comes after the U.S. State Department has been swamped in processing passport applications. Currently, they are needed for travelers by air under the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative. The administration loosened those restrictions until September to allow travelers to provide proof that they applied for a passport.

"The rule issued (Wednesday) should, at least for the moment, bring some relief to Minnesotans worried about what will happen in January of next year for land border travel," Coleman, R-Minn., said in a statement. "I am pleased that the administration has heeded the concerns of the public and those of us in Congress that have urged them to address this problem before land implementation."

But at the same time, "I am somewhat concerned that the proposal aims for a summer 2008 deadline and will continue to work with my colleagues in Congress who are advocating a summer 2009 deadline instead.

"That said, I am pleased with the departments' indication that the ultimate timing of this phase will be determined not by an artificial timetable, but rather the availability of alternative documents, including enhanced driver's licenses and passport cards, as well as alternative documents for Canadians," Coleman added.

Coleman has been seeking alternatives for nearly two years, concerned that passports, at about $100 each, will stifle traffic across the Minnesota-Canadian border, including those who commute across the border daily for work.

He has legislation to allow a more secure driver's license, a passport card, to be used instead of a formal passport.

Wednesday's announcement came on the heels of Tuesday's Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee hearing on the passport backlog, during which Coleman continued to press top State Department officials for alternative documents and delayed implementation of the passport requirement.

During the hearing, Coleman also urged the department to consider opening a new passport processing office in Minnesota. He continued that effort with a formal request to Secretary Condoleezza Rice in a letter Wednesday.

The State Department operates 13 regional passport agencies in cities throughout the country, Coleman wrote Rice.

"Especially during this time of increased passport demand, these agencies have proven invaluable for people who need passports within two weeks," he wrote. "Since March, my Senate office alone has helped more than 1,500 Minnesotans secure passports. For Minnesotans, the closest regional passport agency is in Chicago, which is several hours drive from the Twin Cities, and typically not part of a passenger's travel plans."

Coleman urges Rice to consider opening a regional passport agency in Minnesota.

"Minneapolis-St. Paul is a major hub for Northwest Airlines," he wrote. "It is the origination point for over 13,000 international flights, serving over 1 million people each year. Moreover, the Twin Cities is a major metropolitan area, with a population of 3 million and many Fortune 500 companies operating in the global economy.

"Finally, Minnesota is a border state," Coleman notes. "Two million land border crossings occur at the International Falls port of entry alone. Given the forthcoming need for WHTI-compliant documents for land border crossings, a passport office in the Twin Cities would be of tremendous assistance to my constituents."

At Tuesday's hearing, Maura Harty, assistant secretary of state for consular affairs, took the blame for the passport mess, even as she offered a wide array of explanations.

Part of the problem, she said, was that in 2005 Hurricane Katrina reduced the capabilities of the agency's New Orleans passport office. She also said the agency had not expected so many Americans to actually obey the new law.

And, she said, many people were applying for passports with no specific travel plans in mind -- but that is precisely what northern state lawmakers had warned would happen for those living along the U.S. border who do not plan such trips far in advance.