More seek passports


Flying to Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean got a little tougher this week.

And the lines at local passport facilities are getting a lot longer.

The Androscoggin County Probate Court in Auburn handled 80 passport applications in the past three weeks. It dealt with 220 during all of 2005.

The Livermore Falls Post Office has handled 15 applications and several inquiries. When it started the service in November, virtually no one showed up.

Passport revenue for the last quarter of 2006 in all Maine post offices combined increased 65 percent over the same period in 2005.

In Lewiston, demand has doubled, forcing officials to offer Saturday hours. They hope to add staff soon. “Right now she has people waiting in line,” said Louise Cote, customer service supervisor.

But many people are rushing to get their passports when they don’t need to.

In the past, citizens flying between U.S. and Canada, Mexico, Bermuda, the Caribbean and Central and South America needed only basic ID, such as a driver’s license or birth certificate. Starting this week, children and adults will need a passport when they fly.

Only when they fly.

Passports won’t be required for car or boat passengers for at least a year.

“We’re getting a lot of people panicking,” said Annie Woods, deputy register of probate for Androscoggin County, whose customers typically plan to drive across the border. “Then they say ‘Phew.’ And they want to get it anyway.”

The travel changes were approved as part of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004. Since then, passport applications have seen a steady increase nation wide.

In fiscal 2005, the U.S. State Department processed 10 million passport applications. In 2006 it handled 12.1 million. This year it expects between 16 million and 18 million.

“It’s been a challenge but we have met it head on,” said department spokesman Steve Royster.

The department has increased staff so travelers can get their passports within eight weeks, even with the surge in applications. It has also added a link to its Web site – – to answer questions.

Local passport facilities are getting those questions, too. In some cases, people are waiting in line to ask about photos, processing times and requirements. Some discover they won’t need a passport for a year.

Others find they need one now. Right now.

“The ones we did today, they’re leaving in less than two weeks,” said Dick Weeman, acting postmaster for the Livermore Falls Post Office.

Although applications take four to eight weeks to process, travelers can pay a $30 fee – on top of the regular $96 application charge – and cut the processing time to two weeks. If that’s still too long, travelers can shave off a few more days by sending their applications U.S. express mail for another $28.80.

Still too long? Travelers can go to Boston and handle the process in person.

So far, officials say, travelers are taking it all in stride.

“I think people are mostly OK. We’ve had people say ‘I’m a veteran, I shouldn’t have to do it,’ But they’re OK with it,” said Cheryl Osborne, deputy register of probate for the Franklin County Probate Court. “When they find out the cost, then they complain.”