On the road
A federal agency created after September 11 has a footprint in Reno
One little-noticed result of September 11 is new federal aid to—or demands upon—transportation unrelated to air travel. In Reno, that means that the Transportation Security Administration is consulting with the local bus line.
Three years ago, TSA approached the Regional Transportation Commission in the Truckee Meadows about its RTC Ride bus line, formerly called Citifare, which provides local bus service around the Truckee Meadows.
Today, as a result, there are new, little-noticed features to the line.
“What we’ve gotten out of it at the RTC is a baseline assessment of RTC and its facilities,” said local security and safety administrator Rob Reeder. On top of that assessment is a “transit review” every three years.
In addition, local officials and employees received some training in a program called—with the federal bureaucracy’s gift for language—Visual Intermodal Prevention and Response (VIPR), not to be confused with the U.S. Forest Service’s “Virtual Incident Procurement” (VIPR) program.
“We also work with the feds’ law enforcement specialists in teams called VIPR,” Reeder said. “These are patrol and response teams made up of different specialties.”
These include bomb appraisal, surface transportation inspection and law enforcement. The federal VIPRs appear in Reno from time to time to work with the locals. They were in Reno in July.
“They pair up as teams, and they work with RTC staff. … They actually ride routes,” Reeder said.
Then there’s I-STEP. This acronym stands for Intermodal Surface Transportation Emergency Preparedness. This involves much more elaborate training and exercises involving agencies at all levels of government and in both Northern and Southern Nevada.
TSA describes this program: “Participate in and conduct exercises and training that strengthen security plans, test emergency procedures, and sharpen skills in incident management.”
Reeder describes it as table top exercises built around various scenarios to prepare his agency to assist in emergency or urgent situations.
“For example, if there was some kind of intelligence in the state that a group of people were out and about and possibly represent a threat,” he said. “Our people could keep an eye out. … We would ask our fleet to be eyes and ears out there.” He considers it akin to the Amber Alert program.
The most apparent result of TSA’s involvement with the local bus line is leaflets and posters in the buses and bus stations with messages like this: “BE ALERT! IF YOU SEE SOMETHING, SAY SOMETHING. DON’T TOUCH UNATTENDED ITEMS.” (These materials were drawn from a New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority campaign, thus saving money on writing and design.)
A less obvious result is cameras. There are 360 cameras system-wide, according to Reeder, but RTC will not—for security reasons—disclose where they are. One RTC source told the RN&R that there are 113 cameras at the Sparks station alone. This was not confirmed by RTC officials.
Why is an agency created in reaction to September 11 involved with local bus lines? Although TSA’s creation was accompanied by a lot of news coverage about how they would replace the commercial airport screeners, their mandate did not stop there. Congress essentially empowered TSA to pull anything involving transportation into its purview, which raises the question of why there is also a Transportation Department in the president’s cabinet. TSA is in the Homeland Security cabinet department.
Buses aren’t flown into buildings or hijacked to Cuba, so Reeder understands why people are confused about a federal anti-terror agency being involved with the most basic local services.
“I understand that,” he said. “But TSA doesn’t just handle airlines.” He said it’s involved in surface transportation, shipping of durable products and goods, railroad activity, subways—“any form of transportation that affects the United States.”
That’s exactly what concerns some groups on both the left and right—federal overreaching and privacy intrusions. After some TSA activity at the Tampa, Fla., Greyhound bus depot, the conservative website American Thinker observed, “Bus travelers were shocked when jackbooted TSA officers in black SWAT-style uniforms descended unannounced with local, state and federal law enforcement agencies and federal bureaucrats in tow. A news report by ABC Action News in Tampa showed passengers being given the signature pat downs Americans are used to watching the Transportation Security Administration screeners perform at our airports. Canine teams sniffed their bags and the buses they rode. Immigration officials hunted for large sums of cash as part of an anti-smuggling initiative.”
Tampa has become something of a cause celebre among conservatives. One website used the headline, “DHS, TSA, and Tampa Bay Police Set Up Nazi Style Checkpoints at Bus Stations!”
Mother Jones, a liberal magazine, had this to say: “Surprise! TSA Is Searching Your Car, Subway, Ferry, Bus, AND Plane. Think you could avoid the TSA’s body scanners and pat-downs by taking Amtrak? Think again. Even your daily commute isn’t safe from TSA screenings. And because the TSA is working with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Border Patrol, you may have your immigration status examined along with your ‘junk.’ ”
So far, TSA has been mostly offering to do things for local bus lines, and few have refused help in this time of budget shortfalls. But the day may come when TSA starts making demands or adopting requirements binding on local transportation agencies. In the case of RTC, there was apparently never any consideration given to not accepting what TSA offered.
Truckee Meadows Community College political scientist Fred Lokken said TSA is in a difficult position. U.S. travelers, he said, demand safety but are not accustomed to the kind of restrictions that are in place in nations that have dealt with terrorism longer than the United States.
“The terrible position that TSA finds itself in is that every time it has to do something that travelers don’t like, you get this push-back,” he said.
At the same time, he said, citizens are willing to surrender their rights if they think it makes them safer. As a result, organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union do an essential job of trying to curb excesses.
“We aren’t vigilant enough and at least there are organizations that do us the tremendous service of warning us when we are on these slippery slopes,” Lokken said, noting that a program government designs is not necessarily a good way to solve a problem, and challenging it serves a purpose.
“What we’ve done after 9/11 to make ourselves safe is equally open to debate,” he said.