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Transportation Security: Issues for the 109th Congress

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The nation’s air, land, and marine transportation systems are designed for accessibility and efficiency, two characteristics that make them highly vulnerable to terrorist attack. While hardening the transportation sector from terrorist attack is difficult, reasonable measures can be taken to deter terrorists.

The focus of this issue brief is how best to construct and finance a system of deterrence, protection, and response that effectively reduces the possibility and consequences of another terrorist attack without unduly interfering with travel, commerce, and civil liberties. Aviation security has been a major focus of transportation security policy following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. In the aftermath of these attacks, the 107th Congress moved quickly to pass the Aviation and Transportation Security Act (ATSA; P.L. 107-71) creating the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and mandating a federalized workforce of security screeners to inspect airline passengers and their baggage. The act gave the TSA broad authority to assess vulnerabilities in aviation security and take steps to mitigate these risks. The TSA’s progress on aviation security has been the subject of considerable congressional oversight over the past four years. Aviation security policy and programs continue to be of considerable interest in the 109th Congress.

The July 2005 bombing of trains in London and the bombings of commuter trains and subway trains in Madrid and Moscow in 2004 highlighted the vulnerability of passenger rail systems to terrorist attacks. The volume of ridership and number of access points make it impractical to subject all rail passengers to the type of screening airline passengers undergo. Nevertheless, there are steps that can be taken to reduce the risks and consequences of an attack. These include vulnerability assessments; emergency planning; and emergency response training and drilling of transit personnel, ideally in coordination with police, fire, and emergency medical personnel, as well as purchase of communication and safety equipment. Additional options include increasing the number of transit security personnel, installing video surveillance equipment in vehicles and stations, and conducting random inspections of platforms and trains using bomb-sniffing dogs.

A leading issue with regard to securing truck, rail, and waterborne cargo is the desire of government authorities to track a given freight shipment at a particular time. Most of the attention with regard to cargo vulnerability concerns the tracking of marine containers as they are trucked to and from seaports. Security experts believe this is a particularly vulnerable point in the container supply chain. Debate over who should pay for cargo security, government or industry, and whether mandates or guidelines are the best approach to ensure industry’s due diligence in protecting their supply chains are other leading issues.

Hazardous materials (hazmat) transportation raises numerous security issues. Many Members of Congress want to know whether current federal policies, regulations, and grants could more effectively promote hazmat transportation security at reasonable costs. There are issues regarding routing of hazmat through urban centers, and debate persists over the pros and cons of rerouting high-hazard shipments.


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