Reading an announcement made today from the U.S. Department of Transportation on expanding the role of the Federal Transit Administration in ensuring public rail and bus safety, I chuckled at a veiled reference, likely unintended, to the 1987 cult movie classic starring Steve Martin and John Candy.
Or maybe Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood was indeed feeling nolstalgic with the holidays around the corner.
Those who've seen "Planes, Trains and Automobiles," written and directed by the late, great Chicago son John Huston, will recall the memorable "Those aren't pillows!" scene. Candy's and Martin's characters, Del Griffith and Neal Page, share a motel room and an uncomfortable moment as they stumble and bumble their way home from business trips to spend Thanksgiving with their families in Chicago. (If you've never seen it, I highly recommend you purchase or rent the movie and watch it next week after your turkey dinner and before the triptophan fully kicks in.)
Coming full circle, LaHood, who was born about 180 miles southwest of Chicago in Peoria, Ill., also the home to Caterpillar, uttered the phrase "planes, trains and automobiles" in a statement on including the mass transit industry in the conversation of making public transportation safer and more secure for passengers nationwide. In his words:
“Safety is our number one priority when it comes to planes, trains, and automobiles. And it only makes sense that we should be looking out for passengers who ride subways and light rail and municipal buses, too.”
The conversation is indicative of federal efforts to also expand transit to ease traffic congestion and the nation's dependence on foreign oil. It makes sense, as LaHood says, that safety efforts must also grow.
What it all means is that Congress will receive a proposal, likely by next month, that would require states to pass safety certification programs, train employees on them and demonstrate that they are financially independenct and have the authority to force safety compliance from the transit agencies they oversee. Meanwhile, the school transportation industry is awaiting a TSA terrorism threat assessment for school buses, and there is the FirstObserver program available to school bus drivers nationwide as means of reporting suspicious activity they witness on the road to law enforcement for investigation. While both remain works in progress, Bill Arrington, GM of TSA's Office of Highway and Motorcarrier, told attendees earlier this month at the NAPT conference in Louisville, Ky., that he hopes to have the final report to Congress before the end of the year.
We know the report has been completed for some time now, but it's fallen victim to the beaurocratic red tape of executive review at different levels of Homeland Security, plus the fact that Congress has been tied up with the debate on health care reform. Once Congress does receive the threat assessment, the industry is urged to use it as its blueprint for lobbying the feds for security funding. Arrington also said the industry can expect three school bus security exercises in 2010, one of which will likely be held in California. They would likely be part of TSA's ISTEP training program, considered a critical element in TSA’s transportation security initiatives to ensure that transportation security responsibilities are met. Two school bus exercises were held earlier this summer, one in Columbus, Ohio, and the other in Greensboro, N.C., during the annual NSTA convention.
If funding -- full, partial or otherwise -- is ever realized for school bus security, much of it would likely enhance this I-STEP training exercises, with is a requirement of the 911 Implementation Act specifically motor carriers, mass transit, and freight rail. The transit side and it's big lobby stick appears to already have laid the inroads for receiving these funds. With many still skeptical that, truly, any significant money will trickle down to school bus, how might school transporters be able to get a taste?
Perhaps it's naive to think that any such partnership is possible, but, as the American Public Transportation Association says, one-third of all transit riders are primary or secondary students. There's a definite overlap in providing school transportation, and, in reality, schools should and are already partnering with local transit authorities to coordinate such services. The obvious challenge is the strained relationship between transit and private school bus operators. But, to a certain extent, both are customers of the school districts, so the school districts themselves have a strong voice that should be used -- heard -- to evolve the conversation of federal mass transit, and school bus, security efforts.