Image: Passport workers
Alex Brandon  /  AP
Katherine Estes, formerly assigned to Islamabad, Pakistan, right, looks at a passport application with Christina Bernal formerly from Juarez, Mexico, as they work to reduce the passport backlog earlier this summer.
updated 8/16/2007 4:41:47 PM ET 2007-08-16T20:41:47

For people seeking U.S. passports, faster service is getting slower.

The summer's maddening backlog in passport applications has forced officials to abandon the old standard of a week's wait for people willing to pay $60 extra for speedy service.

People can expect to wait about three weeks for expedited service, and the government indicated Thursday they should get used to it. A regular application now takes 10 to 12 weeks.

The State Department announced the policy change a day after officials offered a new estimate of the burgeoning cost of processing the mountain of passport applications. It will cost nearly $1 billion over three years to handle the surge in applications created by post-9/11 security rules for travel.

Because of the backlog, officials said they will no longer offer assurances that an expedited application will be processed within three business days of receipt.

Instead, customers will have to check the State Department Web site to see how fast "expedited" is.

That processing time is 10 business days. Factoring in shipping time, expedited service usually takes about three weeks.

Critics saw the announcement as fresh evidence of mismanagement.

"What color is the sky in their world?" said Rep. Steven LaTourette, R-Ohio. "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."

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the agency changed its rules "to ensure that the department can continue to offer this expedited service consistent with its regulations despite increases in demand for expedited passport processing."

Asked if a longer wait was still worth the same $60 fee, McCormack joked: "I'll ask people. Maybe we could have like sort of first class and business class and economy class."

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The new government rule leaves open the possibility that expedited service may someday become a one-week affair again, but the State Department no longer wants to promise such speed.

Officials on Thursday renewed their pledge to clear up the overall passport backlog by September.

"This is a clear admission of failure and a decision not to solve the problem," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.

Last year, the agency processed 12.1 million passports. Through the next four years, officials expect to process almost 100 million passports.

The surge in demand stems from rules that went into effect in January requiring U.S. travelers to carry passports when flying to Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean. A similar requirement is to go into effect for all land and sea crossings next year.

During the worst of the delays in late spring and early summer, some applicants who would normally expect to wait six weeks for passports found they had still not received them after 12 weeks or more.

As a result, the Homeland Security Department eased or delayed its requirements, and the State Department was forced to take drastic and expensive measures to trim the backlog, hiring hundreds and paying some employees to return to the U.S. from overseas to handle the paperwork.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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