The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is apparently moving ahead with plans to start issuing new smartcard biometric identification (ID) to more than 75,000 port workers from March, despite earlier concerns by another government agency about its readiness to do so.

As a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) agency, last week the DHS published the final rule for the Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC) scheme put in place after the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 on behalf of the security arm. The move is designed to boost security at an estimated 4,000 transportation facilities in the country.

Under the scheme, all workers at US transportation facilities will be required to undergo criminal background checks and carry DHS-issued smartcard credentials that include their photographs and a fingerprint template. The credentials will be required for unescorted access to secure areas of ports and vessels.

The published final rules spell out the enrolment process for TWIC, as well as disqualifying crimes, usage procedures, fees and other requirements for workers, port owners and operators. Enrolment will start in March "at a small number of ports" and be phased in throughout the remainder of the year at ports around the country, a DHS statement said.

Workers will be notified when and where to apply for the IDs before the program begins. Once the TWIC cards are issued, DHS will then set a deadline by which the workers will be required to carry the cards with them for unescorted access.

The decision to move ahead with the TWIC implementation comes in the wake of a report from the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) in October recommending that the TSA do more testing of both technology and processes before rolling out the smartcard program.

In that report, GAO auditors expressed concern that earlier tests carried out by the TSA between August 2004 and June 2005 had been far too limited in scope and did not fully represent the true scale of the deployment. For instance, when testing the program, the TSA issued cards to just 1,700 workers – not the 75,000 it had originally planned. The TSA also failed to gather sufficient data about the "operational effectiveness" of biometric card readers in "harsh" maritime conditions, the GAO said.

In a response the DHS concurred with the GAO's findings, but did not give any indication that it would perform the additional testing. It stressed that it would be using a contractor experienced with large projects to implement the TWIC initiative. The DHS also noted that it would implement the project in two phases to give port and vessel owners and operators more time to install biometric and other access control components.

In its final rule published last week, the DHS said that the coastguard and other authorised personnel will initially verify TWIC cards when conducting facility and vessel inspections to ensure the cards are valid. Until card reader technology is tested and a regulation issued on access control, facility owners and operators won't be required to use TWIC readers for facility access the DHS said.

The cards will cost between around $149 (£77) each and will be valid for five years. Workers with current "comparable" background checks – including those with a HAZMAT endorsement – will pay a discounted rate, the DHS said.