Mass Transit:

Federal Action Could Help Transit Agencies Address Security Challenges

GAO-03-263: Published: Dec 13, 2002. Publicly Released: Dec 17, 2002.

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About one-third of terrorist attacks worldwide target transportation systems, and transit systems are the mode most commonly attacked. In light of the history of terrorism against mass transit and the terrorist attacks on September 11, GAO was asked to examine challenges in securing transit systems, steps transit agencies have taken to improve safety and security, and the federal role in transit safety and security. To address these objectives, GAO visited 10 transit agencies and surveyed a representative sample of transit agencies, among other things.

Transit agencies have taken a number of steps to improve the security of their systems since September 11, such as conducting vulnerability assessments, revising emergency plans, and training employees. Formidable challenges, however, remain in securing transit systems. Obtaining sufficient funding is the most significant challenge in making transit systems as safe and secure as possible, according to GAO survey results and interviews with transit agency officials. Funding security improvements is problematic because of high security costs, competing budget priorities, tight budget environments, and a provision precluding transit agencies that serve areas with populations of 200,000 or more from using federal urbanized area formula funds for operating expenses. In addition to funding challenges, certain characteristics of transit agencies make them both vulnerable to attack and difficult to secure. For example, the high ridership and open access of some transit systems makes them attractive for terrorists but also makes certain security measures, like metal detectors, impractical. Moreover, because all levels of the government and the private sector are involved in transit decisions, coordination among all the stakeholders can pose challenges. While transit agencies are pursuing security improvements, the federal government's role in transit security is expanding. For example, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) launched a multipart security initiative and increased funding of its safety and security activities after September 11. In addition, the Aviation and Transportation Security Act gave the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) responsibility for the security of all transportation modes, including transit. TSA anticipates issuing national standards for transit security. As the federal government's role expands, goals, performance indicators, and funding criteria need to be established to ensure accountability and results for the government's efforts.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOT's Federal Transit Administration (FTA) conducted security readiness assessments at transit agencies nationwide and identified areas or indicators of security risks. FTA developed leading indicators that are intended to identify goals and measures that could help the transit industry avoid potentially dangerous attacks.

    Recommendation: To help transit agencies enhance transit security, to guide federal dollars to the highest priority, and to ensure accountability and results of the federal government's efforts in transit security, the Secretary of Transportation should establish goals and performance indicators for the department's transit security efforts in order to promote accountability and ensure results.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: GAO recommended that DOT develop risk-based criteria for distributing federal funds to transit agencies for security improvements. DOT concurred with the recommendation. In September 2005, officials with the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), Office of State and Local Government Coordination and Preparedness, and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) signed an annex to an earlier Memorandum of Understanding to establish a pilot communications capability that would provide transit security chiefs and directors with the ability to discuss technology, best practices, and other issues in a secure environment. In addition, FTA developed or updated security plans that included agency-specific protocols to respond to different Department of Homeland Security threat levels and worked with the TSA to establish risk-based criteria that identifies funding priorities so that federal funds can be allocated accordingly.

    Recommendation: To help transit agencies enhance transit security, to guide federal dollars to the highest priority, and to ensure accountability and results of the federal government's efforts in transit security, the Secretary of Transportation should develop clear, concise, transparent criteria for distributing federal funds to transit agencies for security improvements. The criteria should correspond to a risk management approach so that federal dollars are directed to the areas of highest priority.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In response to GAO's recommendation, DOT's Federal Transit Administration (FTA) regional offices established liaisons to the largest transit agencies, creating a 24-hour person-to-person contact with transit agency operations centers. In addition, FTA provided $1.2 million to the American Public Transportation Association to direct the Information Sharing and Analysis Center in providing a secure two-way reporting and analysis structure that enables the sharing of critical alerts and advisories as well as the collection, analysis, and dissemination of security information, including physical and cyber threats, from transit agencies. Also, FTA urged the largest transit agencies to participate in or establish a liaison with the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force to obtain timely information and, if necessary, security clearances.

    Recommendation: To help transit agencies enhance transit security, to guide federal dollars to the highest priority, and to ensure accountability and results of the federal government's efforts in transit security, the Secretary of Transportation should develop and implement strategies to help transit agency officials obtain timely intelligence information, including helping transit agency officials obtain security clearances.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  4. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: GAO recommended that the Secretary of Transportation consider seeking legislation that would allow all transit agencies to use federal urbanized area formula funds for security-related operating expenses. While DOT opposed using formula funds for this purpose, it indicated that the Administration's reauthorization proposal for the Federal Transit Agency would permit urbanized area grantees to expend funds on security-related training and drills. In addition, the reauthorization proposal would continue the current TEA-21 requirement for transit agencies receiving urbanized area formula funds to spend at least one percent of those funds on "mass transportation security projects," unless the DOT accepts an alternative certification that such expenditures are not necessary.

    Recommendation: To prove transit agencies greater flexibility in paying for transit security improvements, the Secretary of Transportation should consider seeking a legislative change to allow all transit agencies, regardless of the size of the urbanized area they serve, to use federal urbanized area formula funds for security-related operating expenses. To discourage the replacement of state and local funds with federal funds, any legislative change should include a requirement that transit agencies maintain their level of previous funding.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

 

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