Stopping terrorism not a top goal of rail security, official says

Preventing terrorist attacks on the nation's subways and railroads is not the government's top goal as it works to secure mass transit systems, the Bush administration's chief transit official told members of Congress on Thursday. Because transit systems have numerous entry points and are often linked to other bus and rail networks, completely preventing terrorist attacks on public transportation systems is an unrealistic goal, Jennifer Dorn, administrator of the Federal Transit Administration, said at a Senate Governmental Affairs Committee hearing. Instead, government and industry should strive to minimize threats to the transit system, she said. "Given the inherently open nature of our transit system, it is more important to concentrate on mitigation than prevention, frankly," said Dorn. "You can't put a scanner at every subway stop." Dorn's comments highlight the difference between the government's approach to airport security and transit security after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. While federal officials will soon aim to check every bag stowed on a plane for explosives, transit officials have said it is simply not possible to screen all carry-on luggage on Amtrak or on the nation's transit systems. If officials installed screening points at New York's Penn Station, for example, they would have to cope with 30,000 Amtrak customers, 300,000 riders from the Long Island railroad and New Jersey transit system, and thousands more customers from the New York City subway system each day. "As a practical matter, the abilities to gate and screen and metal-detect or technologically screen every package and every suitcase and every briefcase, and every piece of luggage in an open facility like [Penn Station],…as a practical matter, it doesn't exist," said Amtrak President George Warrington at an Oct. 6 hearing of the Surface Transportation and Merchant Marine Subcommittee of the Senate Commerce Committee. As an alternate strategy, transit officials from state and local governments have stepped up security training for transit workers, identified system-wide security threats and installed technology such as closed-circuit television to better monitor stations. At the federal level, the Federal Transit Administration has dispensed grants to local and state agencies and will send security assessment teams to the nation's 30 largest transit agencies next week. But on Thursday, officials from local and state transit agencies told senators that they need more federal funding to put in place new security measures. In San Francisco, employees with the Bay Area Rapid Transit District (BART) routinely work overtime to keep pace with new security demands, said Dorothy Dugger, deputy general manager of the system. "Even if we could afford that financially, our people can't sustain that as a way of doing business," she said. BART has requested $70 million from Congress to add barriers and electronic alarms and to set up an emergency operations center to handle security threats. Amtrak has spent $12 million to shore-up security since the Sept. 11 attacks. Rail and port security legislation championed by Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., would give Amtrak $3.2 billion for security upgrades, but some Senate Republicans object to funding the rail corporation at such a high level. By law, Amtrak must be financially self-sufficient by next year, putting further limits on the funds it can devote to security upgrades. "It's particularly difficult when you put security on top of self-sufficiency," said Ernest Fraizer, Amtrak's chief of police. Committee chairman Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., and Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., said they would push for full funding of Amtrak security improvements. In other testimony, Dorn told Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, that the Federal Transit Administration would be the lead federal agency on transit security until the new Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is up and running. She said the TSA plans to absorb security duties for all modes of transportation by June 2002. "When TSA is ready to take over, we expect it will be a seamless transition," she said. Dorn said the federal government should be "very cautious" about expanding its role in transit security. "Generally, the [current] federal role has worked pretty darn well," she said. "The states and localities really need to decide how transit systems will work."
Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec