SPECIAL REPORT: Report - U.S. bridges and tunnels at risk from terrorists

| 9/26/2003

A September report prepared for the Federal Highway Administration and the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials concludes the nation's highway system has vulnerabilities critical enough "to be a matter of national security."

A panel of engineers and experts from across the country prepared the report and contributed their time with no compensation.

"(The panel) believes that loss of a critical bridge or tunnel could exceed $10 billion," the report said. "Moreover, the regional economic consequences of a major coordinated terrorist attack on multiple facilities are almost inestimable."

The report said 1,000 among the nation's 600,000 bridges, if attacked, would result in substantial casualties, economic disruption and other societal ramifications.

Additionally, the U.S. transportation system includes 337 highway tunnels and 211 transit tunnels - many located beneath water, and many with limited alternative routes due to geographic constraints.

"(The panel) recommends prioritization of these bridge and tunnel assets, followed by risk assessment as a guide for allocating federal and state funds, and then implementation of cost-effective operational security measures and engineering design standards to reduce the vulnerability of high-priority bridges and tunnels to terrorist attacks."

Truck attacks among the concerns

In preparing its report, the panel considered the following types of threats:

Truck-sized or barge-sized conventional explosives; low and high-tech conventional explosives; chemical or biological agents released in tunnels; hazmat release in tunnels; ramming bridges via ship or barge, hand-held cutting devices; and devices formed to explode upon penetration.

To help prevent this kind of damage, the panel said new funding sources should be sought, other than from current federal-aid highway sources.

The report also recommended the FHWA take the lead in developing security solutions that can be engineered.

"(FHWA) should collaborate with the TSA in its effort to prioritize critical bridges and tunnels and to administer fund allocation to responsible agencies to meet high priority security needs," the panel said.

In addition, FHWA should clarify the legal position of state transportation departments and public transportation authorities with respect to their responsibility to act when there's an indication of a risk to their facilities.

Finally, the panel urged interagency coordination among FHWA, AASHTO, the Transportation Security Administration and other highway groups; effective communication by those groups to elected officials; and immediate efforts to develop research and development initiatives related to engineering standards regarding securing security for bridges and tunnels.

--by Dick Larsen, senior editor

Dick Larsen can be reached at dlarsen@landlinemag.com.