House Hearing Looks at Surface Transportation Security Technology

February 2, 2018

On January 30, the House Homeland Security Committee’s Emergency Preparedness, Response, and Communications and Transportation and Protective Services Subcommittees held a joint hearing to address the current status of surface transportation security. The hearing was convened shortly after the first attempted suicide bombing of an American method of surface transportation, occurring at a New York City Port Authority Bus Terminal this past December.

The hearing included a panel of four witnesses, all with ranging expertise in surface transportation security and technology:

  • Sonya Proctor is the Director of the Surface Division for the Office of Security Policy and Industry Engagement within the Transportation Security Administration;
  • Robert Pryor is the Director of TSA’s Intermodal Division for the Office of Requirements and Capabilities Analysis;
  • Donald E. Roberts is the Program Manager for Explosive Threat Detection for the Explosives Division of the Homeland Security Advanced Research Projects Agency; and
  • Brian Michael Jenkins is the Director of the National Transportation Security Center for Excellence within the Mineta Transportation Institute.

Subcommittee chairmen John Katko (R-NY) and Dan Donovan (also R-NY) kept the focus of the conversation on the impending threats to surface transportation. Both highlighted that with international attacks like those in Madrid, London, and Brussels occurring so frequently throughout the last few years, the United States should be considering an investment in surface transportation security. Jenkins noted that there have been nearly 3,000 attacks worldwide on surface transportation since 9/11, with 14 of those attacks resulting in 50 or more fatalities each. Additionally, he emphasized that jihadist groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS have began specifically targeting surface transportation, even beginning to encourage their followers to derail trains in 2017.

Ranking Member Bonnie Watson-Coleman (D-NJ) also questioned what could be done to strengthen security for “lone wolves,” or terrorist activists that act alone in both their planning and execution. She pointed to recent examples of New York City and Charlottesville, where major attacks occurred by singular assailants. Jenkins explained that solving security issues such as these is difficult in major cities, because not only are millions of people living in close proximity, but there are thousands of vehicles accessible to these citizens as well. He highlighted some of the plans implemented in cities that have suffered recent attacks like Paris and London, such as stricter barriers and increased protection of frequented venues.

Chairman Katko discussed the investments we have made in transportation security thus far, comparing those we have made in surface transportation to investments in aviation security. Particularly, he questioned TSA’s strategic five-year technology plan and it’s priority on aviation technology rather than surface transport. Both Proctor and Pryor representing TSA noted that the plan has been implemented to develop aviation technology, not surface transportation. They noted that programs such as the National Security Plan and the National Infrastructure Plan have included the technology developments the committee may be looking for, but the chairmen did not believe these to be acceptable investments after attacks like that in New York this December.

Chairman Donovan was also unsatisfied with the timeline that technology is being developed and implemented. He pointed to a technological investment made 7 years ago by the committee that is still in testing, to which he argued that it is probably not relevant to enemy threats anymore. Roberts explained that there are multiple phases to testing and implementation, particularly because the Department of Homeland Security has so many partners in the process.

Ranking Member Watson-Coleman utilized the hearing to feature her newly introduced legislation, the Surface Transportation and Public Area Security Act of 2017. The legislation’s goal is to restore important security programs protecting surface transport, as well as rebuild the relationships between federal and state partners involved in the regulatory process. She highlighted a few of the key components of the bill, including additional funding for transit-security grants, expanding the VIPR Program, growing the TSA canine program throughout the country, and increasing law enforcement presence throughout all levels of surface transport.

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