After New York Attack, Congress Wants TSA to Secure Amtrak, Buses
The U.S. Transportation Security Administration is one of those federal agencies that tends to inspire intense reactions among the traveling public. It’s a bureaucracy that interacts with millions of passengers each day, requiring their shoes, jackets, laptops—and time.
Virtually all this occurs at airports, with about 80 percent of the agency’s $7.4 billion budget spent on aviation security. Only 2 percent of the TSA’s funding goes to surface transportation, according to a report by the Office of Inspector General earlier this month. Congress is looking to change that.
Several U.S. senators want the TSA to focus more attention and resources on rail, highway, and marine transportation, which would mean greater security oversight at such places as Amtrak stations and Megabus coach stops. A bipartisan bill introduced Thursday by Senator John Thune (R-S.D.) would require the TSA to use a risk-based security model for these transport modes and to budget money based on those risks. It would require a wider use of the agency’s terrorist watch list by train operators and more detailed passenger manifests along with tighter screening of marine employees. The legislation also would increase the TSA’s canine use by as many as 70 dog-handler teams for surface transportation.
Lest you begin hyperventilating, it’s virtually impossible to envision airport-style screening detectors or security queues snaked around America’s train and bus passenger depots. “This is very much not creating for bus or rail transportation the [security] model that exists for aviation,” said Frederick Hill, a spokesman for the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, which Thune chairs.
Moreover, it’s unlikely Congress has the will or the wherewithal to fund any massive increase in TSA personnel, already stretched thin this year to handle airport staffing amid budget cuts. In the spring, airline passengers experienced extreme delays at many of the largest airports, leading to a national outcry and quick injection of funds from Congress. The TSA also shifted security agents among airports to ease the crisis. Now, with a budget impasse brewing on Capitol Hill, sufficient funding may again pose a problem for the agency.
The new bill “addresses gaps in TSA’s approach to assessing security risks and will help the agency better fulfill its role as a hub of analysis, planning, and information,” Thune said in a statement. Thune and a co-sponsor, Senator Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), also pointed to the Sept. 18 incident in which police in Elizabeth, N.J., and the FBI were summoned to a train station after a bag containing pipe bombs was discovered. The day before, a device exploded harmlessly in a garbage can in Seaside Heights, N.J., and 29 people were injured in a bombing on a Manhattan street. Ahmad Khan Rahami was arrested Sept. 19 on charges related to the attacks.
The legislation, co-sponsored by Senator Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) and Senator Cory Booker (D-N.J.), also came less than two weeks after the Homeland Security Department’s Inspector General criticized the agency for gaps in its approach to nonaviation security. “TSA’s publicized ‘intelligence-driven, risk-based approach’ was designed for the aviation mode and chiefly for air passenger screening,” auditors wrote. The report also said the TSA lacks a formal process for using risk in its budgeting decisions. The TSA is developing a risk-based security protocol for all transport modes and for allocating its budgets. The agency—which concurred with the recommendations in the IG report—expects to complete the process in 2017.
TSA spokesman Michael England declined to comment on pending legislation.
Amtrak wouldn’t be required to use TSA watch lists or other resources, but the bill would force the TSA to give the rail operator access to its Secure Flight program within six months, if Amtrak directors requested it. Spokesman Craig Schulz said Amtrak looks forward to working with Thune’s committee to develop a “comprehensive policy that helps keep the passenger rail system secure.”
Lanesha Gipson, a spokeswoman for Dallas-based Greyhound Lines Inc., said the bus operator hasn’t yet reviewed the bill. To date, the TSA has conducted security inspections at 33 terminals in Greyhound’s network, Gipson said in an e-mail. “Additional assistance making sure our passengers, employees and buses are safe” would be welcome, said Sean Hughes, a spokesman for Megabus.com, owned by U.K.-based Stagecoach Group Plc.