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TSA improving but must coordinate better with rail industry stakeholders, GAO says

(The following story by Mickey McCarter appeared at HSToday.com on April 23, 2010.)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has taken steps to improve its surface transportation security efforts but it could work more closely with its industry stakeholders and other federal agencies in doing so, according to congressional investigators.

Concerns over an attack on passenger or freight rail and bus systems have increased in recent years after a series of separate attacks on subway systems in Mumbai, London, Madrid, and most recently Moscow, acknowledged Stephen Lord, director of Homeland Security and Justice Issues at the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in a Senate hearing Wednesday.

Although TSA traditionally focuses the bulk of its efforts on aviation security, the agency has taken productive steps to improve surface transportation security. For instance, TSA shared plans with GAO this month to conduct comprehensive risk assessments for the comparison of risk across modes of transportation, which GAO recommended a year ago, Lord told the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee.

GAO further recommended that TSA examine its risk assessments within the individual modes of transportation and thereby expand on the agency's assessments of security threats in its rail security strategy, for example, by including threats to bridges, tunnels, and other infrastructure, Lord said in his testimony, titled Surface Security Transportation: TSA Has Taken Actions to Manage Risk, Improve Coordination, and Measure Performance, but Additional Actions Would Enhance Its Efforts.

While TSA has improved coordination with key stakeholders across the surface transportation sector, it could add to those efforts, Lord noted. TSA reported that it recently held meetings with fellow federal agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Federal Transit Administration, and the Federal Railroad Administration to share information and to thereby enhance its assessment of security risks and to avoid duplicating their efforts.

Although federal and industry stakeholders generally have improved coordination of their freight rail security efforts, more coordination of that kind is required, particularly as TSA has not consulted with its fellow federal agencies as much as it could have in the past, GAO suggested.

TSA also could make better use of performance measures that target specific outcomes to examine the effectiveness of its national strategies for securing surface transportation, Lord said.

"For example, GAO reported in June 2009 that TSA's mass transit strategy identified sectorwide goals, but did not contain measures or targets for program effectiveness. Such measures could help TSA track progress in securing transit and passenger rail systems," his written testimony stated.

GAO called upon TSA to finish a staffing study to determine the appropriate size of its inspector workforce. As of last summer, TSA doubled the number of its surface transportation inspectors and gave them more responsibilities. But the agency had not completely balanced competing priorities between surface and aviation transportation needs, GAO indicated.

Finally, GAO is in the process of putting together a report on TSA's efforts to secure US pipelines, which also fall under its domain. GAO expects to issue a report on pipeline security by the end of the year, but TSA has taken some action to monitor the progress of pipeline security, according to GAO's preliminary findings.

TSA generally agreed with all GAO recommendations and the agency has been in the process of implementing actions to fulfill them.

Friday, April 23, 2010

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