Guarding Subways, Rail From Terror Is Complex, Senators Told

  • TSA chief testifies amid calls for greater transit emphasis
  • Agency devotes bulk of its manpower and budget to aviation

Protecting U.S. subways, railroads and roadways from terrorism is a topic that’s “been on our minds for a long time” because the systems are open to the public and spread out across the country, the U.S. transportation security chief told senators Wednesday.

The Transportation Security Administration devotes more than three-quarters of its budget and 93 percent of its roughly 50,000 employees to aviation. It relies mainly on voluntary actions by local authorities as it tries to prevent attacks like the ones that struck Brussels on March 22, Administrator Peter Neffenger said.

“While any open system is by definition at risk, I think there is a great deal being done to reduce that risk,” Neffenger said in response to a question about how well the agency is addressing threats to non-aviation targets.

The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee’s hearing focused on the latest tactics by Islamic State, sometimes known by the acronym ISIS, which set off bombs at an airport entry hall before passengers passed through security and at a subway station. Both Republicans and Democrats this week have called for heightened security to help prevent such attacks in the U.S.

‘Maximize Carnage’

“The TSA must learn from past attacks,” Senator John Thune, the South Dakota Republican who’s chairman of the committee, said at the hearing. He also called in a speech Tuesday for TSA to do more to police potential non-aviation targets.

He said security measures should be attached to a bill setting Federal Aviation Administration policy that was scheduled to be taken up by the full Senate later on Wednesday.

Islamic State terrorists also struck multiple locations in Paris on Nov. 13, killing 130 people at a theater, a restaurant and a soccer stadium.

Senator Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, said far more people have died in terrorist attacks on non-aviation forms of transportation since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

“It’s time to reexamine our transportation security strategy and refocus our efforts,” Nelson said.

A group of Democrats, led by New York Senator Charles Schumer, said Tuesday they planned to introduce legislation to expand the use of armed TSA teams, improve training on responding to active shooters and boost security in unsecured areas at airports.

6,800 Agencies

There are more than 6,800 transit agencies in the U.S., from small bus lines to subway systems carrying millions of people each day in New York and Washington, Neffenger said.

TSA’s budget is heavily weighted toward aviation. For the current fiscal year, the Obama administration proposed a $7.6 billion budget for the agency that would spend 76 percent on aviation security, compared with 1.1 percent on surface transportation. The bulk of the remaining amount is earmarked for intelligence and other agency functions.

The U.S. Transit Security Grant Program, which is administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and TSA, has seen its funding cut. It awarded $389 million in 2008. Within four years, that fell to $87.5 million, where it has roughly stayed since.

The TSA also has armed teams it calls Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response, or VIPR, that it can assign to different locations. The VIPR teams have done 60 percent of their patrols on aviation-related details in recent years, Neffenger said.

TSA also does exercises with law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and Canada, he said.

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