Report: N.Y. City Commuter Tunnels Vulnerable to Terrorist Activity

By | December 29, 2006

It has long been one of New York City’s nightmares: Terrorists target tunnels, flooding commuter lifelines and possibly some of the city itself.

The grim scenario is getting renewed scrutiny after a new report suggested that PATH commuter rail tunnels between Manhattan and New Jersey are more vulnerable to attack than previously thought, raising questions about whether officials have taken enough precautions.

“It’s a cause for concern,” Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said. He added that he was waiting to see a copy of the newly disclosed draft analysis of the rail system, which serves 230,000 people each weekday.

Gov. George Pataki said the analysis, first reported in last Friday editions of The New York Times, was part of an ongoing effort to look at security on regional transit systems.

“There are going to be continual efforts to upgrade the infrastructure and to take security measures to protect us in the post-9/11 era,” he said.

Other lawmakers, including U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, said the report showed a need for more federal funding for transit security.

The analysis painted an ominous picture: In the worst case, a small explosive sneaked onto a train could punch a 50-square-foot hole in a PATH tunnel, letting in more than 1 million gallons of water a minute. Flooding could engulf parts of the system within hours.

The analysis, characterized as preliminary and continuing, was based on work by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California and the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy. The Times obtained it from an unidentified government official who it said was troubled by the agency’s response to it.

Officials with the agency that runs the PATH system, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, would not discuss the specifics of the analysis.

“The Port Authority constantly conducts threat analyses and risk assessments for our facilities, and we will continue to work with our partners on all levels of government,” spokesman John McCarthy said. “It’s an unending process, as we are never satisfied and will always look for ways to upgrade security.”

Concerns have been raised for years about potential terrorist attacks on tunnels connecting to New York City. In July, authorities said they had thwarted a suicide-bomb plot involving the PATH tunnels.

Law enforcement officials said the overseas suspects arrested in that scheme had hoped to unleash the Hudson River on the city, in part by destroying an underground wall that keeps water from entering the World Trade Center site. Entrances to the ground zero pit have been under 24-hour police guard ever since.

McCarthy defended the system’s safety.

“If at any time we believed the riders of the PATH were in imminent jeopardy, we would immediately close the system,” he said.

The Port Authority police recently increased patrols and bag
searches in the PATH system, and the agency’s board voted last week to spend $180 million to boost security on the rail line.

Unlike other tunnels that were bored through bedrock, the PATH’s
tunnels consist of four cast-iron and concrete tubes that run along
the riverbed.

The analysis relied on both computer models and physical tests on cast iron from the tunnels, according to the Times. It describes several steps to lessen the effect of any explosions, including installing floodgates and fortifying critical parts of the tunnels.

Commuters catching the PATH last Friday morning said that while the threat of a terrorist attack was unsettling, they would continue riding. “I don’t have a choice,” said David Sensenich, 37, boarding the train at Newark (N.J.) Penn Station. “I have to for work.”

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Associated Press writers Janet Frankston Lorin in Newark, N.J., and Michael Gormley in Albany, N.Y., contributed to this report.

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