Allegheny County processes record number of passports

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Allegheny County's passport office has taken flight.

The office, which has been located in the same space as the marriage license office on the first floor of the City-County Building, Downtown, since 2008, processed 792 passport applications that year. By 2012, the number jumped to 1,981, but last year it more than doubled with 5,059 applications processed.

"That's a huge jump," said Kate Barkman, director of the Allegheny County Department of Court Records, which runs both the passport and marriage license offices.

And, she said, it seems as though the numbers are headed higher.

Although payment for the passport or passport card itself goes to the U.S. Department of State, Allegheny County charges a $25 application fee, an amount set by the State Department, as well as a $10 fee if a person has passport photos taken at the office.

The revenue from those fees, for the first two months of this year, was $35,110, far higher than the $18,354 the county received in the first two months of 2013, a year when total revenues were $150,134. The forecast for 2014 is for $180,000 to come into the county through revenues from passport applications.

As for why her department has seen such a large increase in the number of people seeking a passport, Ms. Barkman gave a few reasons.

For one, she said, more people may be finding they need a passport, now that the document is necessary for travel even to the border countries of Canada and Mexico, a requirement enforced starting in 2009. Other passport applicants seem to be taking advantage of the office's late Wednesday hours, when it is open until 7:30 p.m.

And many customers tell Ms. Barkman's staff that they come to the City-County Building after attempting to get an appointment for passport services at their local Post Office, but learn that appointments might not be available for a few weeks or at a convenient time. No appointments are required at the county's passport office.

The county may be experiencing a passport liftoff, but it seems the U.S. Postal Service's Western Pennsylvania district -- a prime destination for first-time passport seekers with 13 locations for application services in Allegheny County -- might be seeing more of a landing.

Postal Service spokesman Tad Kelley said the agency's Western Pennsylvania district saw increases in revenue from passport fees from 2009 to 2011, but although demand for passport services has remained steady, it is leveling off. He said passport fees were down 11 percent in fiscal year 2013 compared with fiscal year 2012, and as of February, are down 6 percent.

By the end of 2013, there were more than 117 million Americans with passports, including nearly 4.4 million in Pennsylvania, according to numbers compiled by the State Department.

And while the Department of Court Records may have had a big 2013, with more than 5,000 applications processed, it was still only a fraction of the number of passports issued in Allegheny County that year, according to the State Department. That number -- 45,037 -- also includes people who renew their passports, which doesn't require a visit to a passport processing location (though children under 16 must renew in person with parents present.)

Still, for the county office, it was a lot. Ms. Barkman said the office adjusted to the demand by training marriage license staff to also process passports and scheduling more people to work at busy times.

Friday morning, Tony Costantino, a 20-year-old Duquesne University student and a seminarian for the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh, added another to the pile.

He said he'd learned recently of an opportunity to travel to Medjugorje, Herzegovinia, and to Rome. The trip is planned for May, and when other friends also going on the trip told him they had not been able to make quick appointments at the Post Office, he decided to try the county's service instead.

"I thought it would be quicker to come here, without getting an appointment," he said.

The flight to Europe will be long, but the wait to apply for a passport was not. Twenty minutes after he arrived, he said, he was handing over his application materials to Sarah Lange, another office supervisor.

Ms. Barkman and Ms. Lange said passport applicants include families going on cruises; students planning to study abroad; engaged couples applying for a marriage license for their wedding and passports for their honeymoon; recently naturalized citizens, as well as Steelers and Penguins players.

The office usually does 25 to 30 applications a day, but this time of year, with people preparing for spring break and summer travel, is their busy season, Ms. Lange said. Between 3 p.m. Wednesday and 3 p.m. Thursday, she said the office processed 72 applications.

"It just exploded with us," said Drew Hunter, a supervisor at the office. "It's unbelievable how many we do."

Kaitlynn Riely: or 412-263-1707.

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