Federal Transit Security Inspections: A Once-Every-Three Years Affair

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is linked most closely in the popular consciousness with aviation security, but its mandate also extends to protecting rail and transit systems -- a job that needs to get more attention from the agency, according to senior senators from both parties.

0329_US_Subway_Security_full_380.jpgSecurity on New York City's subway, above, was boosted last month after transit bombings in Moscow. (Photo: AP)

At a Thursday hearing of the Senate Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over the TSA, Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) noted that the agency has yet to finish a rail security risk assessment and strategy outline that Congress ordered up by 2008 at the latest.

"Get going" on strengthening TSA's surface transport security work, Lautenberg told David Heyman, assistant secretary for policy at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). "This is an outrage that it's taken so long. This is like the traffic cop standing on the sidewalk and watching the traffic go by [not thinking] about when he ought to interrupt the flow to keep the cars from crashing into one another."

The commerce panel's senior Republican, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (TX), also raised pointed questions about TSA's policy of conducting inspections at the top 50 U.S. transit networks once every three years.

"Does that seem like enough supervision," Hutchison asked, "if the transit agencies know that once an inspection is done, they won't be inspected for three years?"

Heyman described the inspection schedule as "in sync with the granting cycle" that TSA uses for rail security funding. "There are about 5,000 transit sites across the country, and given the limited [number of] inspectors, that's the tempo of operations I think that can be sustained at this point," he told Hutchison.

The DHS is the parent agency of TSA, which has lacked a permanent leader since the White House's second nominee for the post in two months withdrew his name from consideration amid media scrutiny.

The nonpartisan Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a new audit of TSA in advance of the hearing that focused on its unfinished business in gauging security vulnerabilities on local rail and roads. Stephen Lord, the GAO's homeland security director, told the commerce panel that the locally-managed nature of many transit systems heightens the importance of the agency's collaboration with state and local governments, as well as private-sector operators, all the more important.

"TSA needs to do a better job of interacting with ... transit stakeholders," Lord said. "There's a lot of expertise there that we're not certain TSA has actually taken advantage of."