Sen. Cory Booker Legislation Meant to Strengthen Rail Security

By Erin Delmore

“Heaven forbid that an attack like what happened in Chelsea, just a few blocks away from here, happens on New Jersey Transit or on the PATH,” said MG Security Services President Manny Gomez.

Security experts and lawmakers say it’s time to toughen up security around the nation’s railroads and buses. With around 500 rail stations in his home state, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker is taking the lead.

“This legislation is bipartisan legislation that I think right now is going to take some good steps to getting the TSA to do what I think is necessary to harden these targets,” Booker said.

The TSA is best known for handling security at America’s airports. But it’s also charged with protecting surface transportation. That is the rail systems that connect more than 100 Garden State municipalities, and the buses that run between them.

“TSA, we all think of them as being the people that provide security in the airports. But the way the bill was written, they also are supposed to implement infrastructure. And they haven’t really done so. No fault to them, to some extent, because the budget really isn’t there and wasn’t implemented,” Gomez said.

The TSA says it puts only 3 percent of its budget toward protecting surface transportation.

“That, to me, seems inadequate and does not seem to be a good assessment of what the vulnerable target that our rails are,” Booker said.

To that end, Booker introduced the Surface Transportation and Maritime Security Act of 2016. His bill would require the TSA to disclose how it allocates funding and staff to different modes of transportation, enhance worker screenings, authorize the use of TSA passenger vetting systems for rail passengers, develop new tools for explosive detection and up the number of K9 units by 70 upon the bill’s passage, then another 130.

“We’re living in a totally different environment from 9/11. We’re living in domestic terrorism, homegrown terrorists. That wasn’t envisioned from 9/11,” Gomez said.

The TSA told us in an email surface transportation systems aren’t handled like airports. The administration’s primary focus is “oversight, cooperation and regulation” — working collaboratively with operators like NJ Transit and Amtrak and local, state and federal security partners. NJ Transit wouldn’t talk to us but Amtrak said it looks forward to working with the senators to develop a comprehensive policy.

Many of the recommendations being pushed by lawmakers were called out in two Inspector General reports this year. Others, mandated by the 9/11 Commission, due to take effect in 2008 but stalled. Former Gov. Tom Kean chaired that commission.

“Probably 98 percent of our recommendations were enacted within the first two or three years. Some of them are still outstanding. And Cory is a good senator. I’m sure when the time comes I’ll come down and testify and we’ll try to get it through and it will be helpful. But you know what the most helpful thing is? It’s you and I. If we see something wrong and report it, that’s the way this thing is going to be stopped,” Kean said.

Gov. Kean says the Northeast Corridor is the busiest part of the country when it comes to rail. It has the most to lose but he said it also the most to gain when vigilant tri-staters see something and say something.