A New Passport Plant for the GPO

Posted March 11, 2008 at 6:37pm

The Government Printing Office is moving part of its passport printing business to Mississippi, alleviating the struggle of producing all of the nation’s passports in one facility on North Capitol Street.

Today, Public Printer Robert Tapella will announce that the new plant will be at the rural and isolated Stennis Space Center in southern Mississippi. To NASA, the center is the main location for rocket propulsion testing; for the GPO, it will provide a secure space for an 80,000-square-foot production plant.

With its help, GPO officials expect to produce more than 20 million electronic passports this year for the State Department, a figure the GPO says is a bigger annual number than all other countries combined. And the GPO is the sole printer for the United States.

“We’re the 800-pound gorilla,” Tapella said. “We are No. 1 in this industry.”

And perhaps nothing better illustrates the digital makeover of the GPO than its production of electronic passports.

As it pumps out the booklets, the GPO formats and embeds an electronic chip in the cover. It’s an example of the GPO’s move from traditional printing plant to digital information center.

It’s a lucrative transition. Last year, the passport venture brought in $241 million — all earmarked for materials, upgrades and technology investment. The demand is so high that the agency has tripled its passport workers since 2005 and will hire 50 employees to work in its new Mississippi facility.

But the facility will not just help ease the pressure on the GPO’s Washington, D.C., plant. It also will ensure that there is a backup outside of the nation’s capital. Sept. 11 put such a plan in motion; now, if a disaster or emergency in Washington puts GPO headquarters out of commission, the Mississippi facility will be able to continue.

GPO officials chose the facility specifically for its security features. Stennis originally was used as a place to test the launch vehicles for the Apollo missions back in the 1960s. Now it houses 30 different federal agencies on thousands of acres in the middle of a swamp. It’s isolated, far from D.C., on a different power grid and survived Hurricane Katrina with only minimal damage. Just 45 miles from New Orleans, it was a shelter for those fleeing the city.

“It proved itself in one of the worst nightmares that faced this country,” Tapella said. “That was actually a sales feature.”

The site also promises to alleviate the late-night hours of GPO’s Washington office. Last year was particularly rugged — demand increased to 20 million passports from just 13 million the year before. That increase is largely blamed on legislation that required Americans to show a passport while traveling in North America; in previous years, a driver’s license sufficed.

The State Department had trouble meeting the demand, but GPO officials say they always met their weekly quota. They went from one shift to two, keeping production going 16 hours a day and on most weekends. The agency doubled its staff from about 60 to more than 120. When demand was particularly high, officials kept production going for 24 hours.

And during it all, the agency was still transitioning, training employees who once produced paper-only passports to craft electronic ones.

GPO officials are trying to make the same kind of transition throughout the agency as more documents are “born digital,” requiring employees who are comfortable with computers and the digital world.

“The GPO has been going through quite a transition for the past few years as we roll out not just electronic passports but digitalization of those documents we used to just print,” said Steve LeBlanc, managing director of security and intelligent documents. “The electronic passport was seen as part of an overall agency transition to the digital age.”

In LeBlanc’s department, passports aren’t the only federal identification that has gone electronic. More federal agencies are going to the GPO for electronic credentials and documents, an alternative to the magnetic strip cards.

“What we’re seeing is there’s a growth in federal agencies coming to us because they like the idea of having this in the government” rather than in the hands of private companies, he said.

But it’s an expensive undertaking, especially for the passport. While the GPO used to charge the State Department about $3 per passport, it now charges $14.80. That price not only includes materials but also helps fund investments in new technology, new equipment, new employees and the new Mississippi facility.

Producing the passport is a rigorous exercise. Employees have to format the chip, print the paper and bind the book. It takes one passport as long as two days to go through it all. Then the State Department personalizes each chip with an individual’s information, such as name, birth date, age and passport number.

For 90 years, the GPO printed a passport that hardly ever changed. Now it must plan for constant modifications

Officials think it’s all worth it. Steve Royster, a spokesman for consular affairs at the State Department, called the finished product “the gold standard.”

“It just has the latest in security features,” he said, adding: “It’ll continue to evolve and we’ll continue to work to produce the best travel document for America.”