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American Shipper

Senate bill targets greater role for TSA, security improvements

Senate bill targets greater role for TSA, security improvements

   A group of U.S. senators introduced sweeping security legislation Tuesday for all modes of transportation and hazardous material shipments that seeks to pre-empt, reverse or accelerate many Department of Homeland Security programs and plans, including restoring the Transportation Security Administration to pre-eminence in managing security on the domestic front, and requiring importers to file customs entry information 24-hours prior to loading at a foreign port to help identify suspicious containers in advance.

   Sponsors of the bill, concerned that the Bush administration has not done enough to close security vulnerabilities, said the department needs new priorities and resources to address shortcomings in the way it protects the nation’s transportation system.

   A key goal of the legislation is to re-establish TSA as the lead agency in the domestic cargo transportation security arena, supported by $19.34 billion over the next three years.

   The TSA has slowly seen its mission marginalized as the Bush administration has lost confidence in the agency and shifted many of its responsibilities, including many aspects of maritime, cargo and surface transportation security, to other areas of the department. Last year DHS quietly took over setting overall transportation security policy. Other attempts to reorganize the department would leave TSA as primarily a screening agency for airline passengers, and there are provisions in existing law allowing the government to return the airport screening function to private sector companies.

   The administration’s 2006 budget proposal, for example, assigns several TSA-led programs such as the Transportation Worker Identification Card, to a new DHS Office of Screening Coordination and Operations. TWIC is being designed as a universally recognized biometric card that will be accepted across all modes of the transportation system.

   Critics charge that the agency has squandered millions of dollars through poor management, has failed to improve passenger screening at airports and has been slow to develop air cargo, truck and rail security plans.

   But in his statement introducing the bill, Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, said “we cannot and must not use these inadequacies as justification to cast aside the critical work of this agency,” adding that national security is inherently a governmental function.

   “The TSA should not focus almost exclusively on aviation, nor should it be transformed into a glorified security screener training and placement agency. The TSA is essential, and it posses critical expertise that must be cultivated and put to proper use. We believe that the TSA, as outlined by our bill, can and will be the difference between a flourishing economy fueled by smooth-running transportation systems and an economy crippled by transportation systems that could fall victim to terrorist attacks,” Inouye said.

   To bolster TSA, the bill establishes a regional command structure for maritime and land security initiatives, lifts the 45,000 cap on full time airport screeners to reduce airport wait times, and provides guidance to improve security preparedness. The bill prohibits the administration from going forward with increasing passenger fees to cover TSA operations without the approval of Congress. Inouye said the troubled airline industry cannot afford higher fees.

   The legislation incorporates several previous Senate initiatives as well as new proposals to improve transportation security, especially in the maritime and rail sectors.

   One provision requires importers to file customs entries 24 hours prior to loading at a foreign port as is currently done with the manifest. Customs and Border Protection feeds the manifest data into its automated targeting system for assessing which containers pose a high-risk and warrant closer inspection, but industry officials have long advised that the manifest provides imperfect data for targeting because it comes via a third party, and does not provide enough detail about the actual contents. Many lawmakers believe that is one of the main flaws of the container selectivity strategy.

   Christopher Koch, president of the World Shipping Council, in Tuesday testimony before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, said the government needs to supplement the ocean carrier bill of lading data it receives by requiring certain data elements from the customs entry be submitted by the importer prior to vessel loading.

   “If a risk assessment strategy is to remain the core of the government’s cargo security system, the government needs to decide what additional advance cargo shipment information it needs to do the job well, and it must require cargo interests, and not just carriers, to provide the relevant data in time to do the advance security screening,” Koch said.

   Last year, an industry advisory group to CBP known as COAC identified nine pieces of data that importers should provide in advance, including the selling and purchasing parties, better cargo descriptions, the point of origin of the goods and the ultimate consignee. CBP is already engaged in a pilot project with a handful of importers to test how purchase orders and other types of transaction information can be transmitted so CBP hast more information about the cargo sooner in the supply chain. But neither Koch, COAC or CBP actually calls for submitting the customs entry itself before goods arrive in the United States.

   The bill further instructs CBP to develop standards for evaluating, screening and inspecting cargo prior to loading in a foreign port. Emphasis is also placed on guidelines for reopening ports in the event of a terrorist attack, including clarifying requirements for the expedited clearance of cargo through the Secure Systems of Transportation program and directing the U.S. Coast Guard to give vessels with certified security plans preference for port access following an incident. Congress requested in 2002 that DHS develop a Secure Systems of Transportation program that would rely on technology to record and verify container stuffing and provide in-transit status reports rather than rely on commercial data for targeting, and some lawmakers are frustrated the system is not completed.

   The bill also directs DHS to make port security grants more risk-based and allows for multi-year funding of projects. The measure is a reaction to the administration’s proposal to fold port security grant programs into a catch-all bucket for critical infrastructure projects across many industries. Ports have complained that such a proposal would further reduce the already limited amount of grants by forcing them to compete with utilities, telecom companies and other industries for project reimbursement money and eliminate the expertise necessary to review grant proposals and distribute the funds.

   Other provisions of the bill would:

   * Ensure funding for port security technology pilot projects authorized last year, and set a minimum floor for research and development funding for technologies to protect maritime and surface transportation systems.

   * Imposes a deadline for the implementation of the TWIC program by Jan. 1, although DHS officials have said they plan to issue a rulemaking on the program this summer after many delays caused in part by a lack of communication and coordination between TSA and DHS.

   * Require an interagency review of existing foreign assistance programs that can be used to assist foreign ports in implementing port security antiterrorism measures.

   * Expand the use of joint operations centers to all major seaports similar to ones already in place in San Diego and Charleston, S.C.

   The bill, which incorporates an updated version of the Rail Security Act of 2004 that did not become law, requires TSA to conduct a threat assessment and prioritize recommendations for improving rail security as well as iron out any overlap in security roles with the Department of Transportation. Freight railroads and others will be able to receive grants to improve security and the bill authorizes a pilot program for passenger, baggage and cargo screening.

      The legislation creates a rail security research and development program in DOT and encourages the deployment of rail car tracking equipment for super toxic hazardous materials. Railroads would also be required to create a program to train employees in security matters and whistleblower protection for rail workers who report security lapses. The bill also codifies National Transportation Safety Board recommendations to improve track and tank car safety.

   Trucking security is addressed with a requirement for foreign commercial drivers transporting hazardous materials in the United States to undergo security background checks as is now required of U.S. drivers seeking a new or renewed driver’s license with a hazmat endorsement. Motor carriers that transport the most dangerous hazardous materials must outfit their trucks with wireless tracking and communications capabilities and have written plans for highway routes of certain hazmat shipments.

   “The administration has consistently failed to develop dedicated programs, much less financial support, for rail and other surface transportation security efforts,” Inouye said.

   The bill is backed by two Republicans, Ted Stevens, chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee from Alaska; and Olympia Snowe, of Maine. Democratic co-sponsors besides Inouye are Jay Rockefeller, W.Va.; Frank Lautenberg, N.J.; Byron Dorgan, N.D.; Barbara Boxer, Calif.; Maria Cantwell, Wash.; Mark Pryor, Ark.; and Hillary Clinton and Charles Schumer, both from New York.

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