TSA to Begin Screening S.F. Bay Ferryboats

Terrorism prevention is not just taking place on land and in the air — ferryboats traveling across the San Francisco Bay have become the newest target in the "war on terrorism." Sarah Varney of member station KQED in San Francisco reports on a new project by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to help make the bay ferries safer.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

If you have to go to work at all, there could scarcely be a more glorious commute in the world than that afforded by the ferry service that runs from Marin County, California, past the Golden Gate Bridge and into San Francisco. The boats are spacious and comfortable, and they serve cocktails. Yesterday, the Transportation Security Administration added a new amenity, security, after complaints that the coasts are vulnerable to terrorists. From member station KQED in San Francisco, Sarah Varney reports.

SARAH VARNEY reporting:

The Golden Gate Ferry carries 4,500 people a day from Marin County to downtown San Francisco.

Unidentified Man: All set.

Unidentified Girl: Thank you.

VARNEY: At the Larkspur Ferry Terminal yesterday, passengers faced new security measures meant to thwart a potential terrorist attack.

Unidentified Man: Hello.

Unidentified Woman: Hi.

Unidentified Man: Just need to see this card.

VARNEY: TSA screeners handed passengers a paper card that is then put through a high-tech scanning machine capable of detecting any bomb-making chemicals or materials left on a person's hands. The process takes about 10 seconds. With multiple lines, TSA hopes to test 16 passengers a minute. Jim Bamberger, head of maritime safety for TSA, says the 30-day pilot program will run during off-peak hours at first and is intended to test how quickly security officials can screen passengers.

Mr. JIM BAMBERGER (Transportation Security Administration): It's one of our mandates here not to affect ferry schedules, so we're working very closely with Golden Gate Ferry and the Coast Guard to ensure that we do not affect ferry departure and arrival times and that we not affect passengers making the ferry they would have normally made.

VARNEY: Bamberger admits the scanning machine, though highly sensitive, is not foolproof. If a person slipped a backpack on a passenger without touching the passenger's hands, the machine would not detect any chemical residue. Vice Admiral Harvey Johnson, Coast Guard commander for the Pacific, says if screeners hand-searched every passenger and bag the ferry system, or any other mass transit system, would collapse. Johnson calls the new security measures a first step.

Vice Admiral HARVEY JOHNSON (Pacific Coast Guard): We want the terrorists to know that in the past he or she may have been able to walk aboard a ferry unimpeded, but that day will end at some point. We will find a technology that works and we will deter it and make the terrorists' job that much more difficult, just as we are in other modes of transportation.

VARNEY: Still, Santa Rose resident Carol Turner, on her way to a retirement luncheon in San Francisco, says she feel safer riding the ferries with the new screening in place.

Ms. CAROL TURNER (Ferry Rider): Things can happen no matter what we do, but I would imagine the more we're aware and the more processing we go through that we're going to eliminate X amount of concern.

VARNEY: To Drew Bamford(ph) and Michele Gray, a couple visiting from Seattle, casting a wider net won't necessarily nab more terrorists.

Mr. DREW BAMFORD (Tourist): To me it seems more like an appearance of thoroughness than actual thoroughness. And it's more of an inconvenience, I think, to the average traveler than it is a barrier to actual terrorism.

Ms. MICHELE GRAY (Tourist): And yet I feel that people want something to be done. I think the majority of people feel good that at least they're doing something, even if it doesn't even--I don't think it really matters to them how much it really is going to change things or help things as much as they know that, well, at least their tax dollars, at least something--somebody is doing something.

VARNEY: Transportation experts say even though ferries carry far fewer passengers than trains and buses, terrorists could hijack a ferry and run it into an oil tanker, cruise ship or bustling port. If the screening program in San Francisco is successful, it could be expanded to other routes in other US cities. For NPR News, I'm Sarah Varney in San Francisco.

CHADWICK: DAY TO DAY returns in a moment. I'm Alex Chadwick.

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