Without transportation and communications, emergency response can move at an uncomfortably slow pace, enough so that life, property, and the environment may be unnecessarily compromised. Although functioning roads and bridges during such times are critical, transportation support is a multimodal endeavor involving the rail, transit, aviation, and maritime sectors. These modal sectors, along with roads and bridges, are considered critical infrastructure in federal, state, and regional response plans and must be protected as an integrated network from threats and other risks.
What Makes This Sector Critical to the Nation, and What Possible Effects Does It Have on States and Local Communities?
In 1919, Lieutenant Colonel Dwight D. Eisenhower took part in the 62-day U.S. Army’s transcontinental motor convoythat drove 3,251 miles between Washington, D.C., and Oakland, California. After becoming president, Eisenhower signed the Federal Highway Act of 1956 on June 29. This bill set the map for the 41,000 miles of a new National System of Interstate and Defense Highways. The intent was to:
[E]liminate unsafe roads, inefficient routes, traffic jams and all of the other things that got in the way of “speedy, safe transcontinental travel.” At the same time, highway advocates argued, “in case of atomic attack on our key cities, the road net would permit quick evacuation of target areas.” For all of these reasons and more, the 1956 Act declared that the construction of an elaborate expressway system was “essential to the national interest.”
The U.S. multimodal transportation system is an essential and complex system of highways, local arterials and roads, pipelines, maritime systems, rail networks, and air facilities that is of vital national interest – connecting people, services, and goods across the country. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) designated the Transportation Sector as an individual sector comprising aviation, highways, motor carriers, maritime resources, mass transit, pipeline systems, freight rail, and postal shipping. Each sub-sector critically impacts the nation, states, and local communities. While these modes are unique to each industry, they also represent the cascading impact they can have on each other should one fail, as defined within the DHS critical infrastructure sectors and Emergency Support Functions (ESF).
Section 1016 of the USA Patriot Act (42 USC 5195e) provides the current definition of critical infrastructure, describing systems and assets that are:
[S]o vital to the United States that the incapacity or destruction of such systems and assets would have a debilitating impact on security, national economic security, national public health or safety, or any combination of those matters.
As seen in human-caused and natural disasters, the Transportation Sector plays a significant role in supporting the movement of goods and services to communities during blue-sky and dark-sky conditions. Equally important, most ESFs rely on an unimpeded multimodal transportation system to carry out their essential services. For example, ground and air assets are vital to firefighting efforts during a wildfire response. However, the same roads and airspace could be needed for human and livestock evacuations, law enforcement, life-sustaining freight movements, and other response activities.
During the 2021 wildfire season, a fire in Northern California burned a large section of the Black Butte rail freight line. As a result, rail services were diverted to trucks, which congested Modoc and Shasta County roads and delayed delivery schedules. The Black Butte line is the main line into California from Oregon. Aviation support was also challenged when ingress and egress routes to airfields became constrained. Some of these roads and bridges can be more critical than others and are important to federal and state Critical Infrastructure Protection units. Criticality can be impacted by specific functions and flow along with events. These roads can become chock points and, in some cases, the only means of egress and supply chain movement.
What Are This Sector’s Key Assets and Interconnected/Interdependent Systems (Physical or Cyber)?
The Transportation Sector has many complex interconnections to key assets. Working through the National Response Framework ESFs, these assets can include highway, road and bridge surface conditions, mass transit movements for elderly and disabled citizens (Access and functional needs communities), airports and aircraft systems, maritime and seaport systems, and pipelines, all of which should be initially considered as one interconnected system. Maritime shipping, air cargo, rail haul, and surface freight are linked and scheduled for daily operations and economic stability. Local emergency managers must consider these networked shipping movements during emergencies to avoid unnecessary impacts on local, regional, and national economies.
Within the cyber environment, the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) shares that,
Cybersecurity is a growing concern for public transit agencies. The most common cybersecurity incidents threatening transit agencies involve email compromise, data breaches, ransomware, counterfeit hardware, and supply chain risks.
These risks are ever evolving and can cause significant cascading impacts on more than just the transportation sector. As more transportation systems become dependent on cloud-based technologies, the risk for cyberthreats increases the likelihood that multiple modal systems could be compromised or failed by cascading cyberattacks or the results thereof. This includes the transportation systems themselves and above and underground utilities that use the transportation right-of-way.
Also, when moving around an impacted area, the proliferation of autonomous vehicles requires real-time communication with various network systems to ensure such vehicles do not block responder movements. For example, stranded autonomous vehicles caused by cyberattacks or other incidents could block responders.
What Are This Sector’s Dependencies (Physical, Cyber, Geographic, and Logical) and Interdependencies With Other Critical Infrastructures?
An often-overlooked interdependency is the number of utilities buried or co-located in road rights-of-way, including fuel pipelines, overhead utilities, and buried utility conduits. The Energy Sector depends on open transportation systems, so operations can be disrupted if roads are damaged during incidents. Access to utility repairs can also be delayed when minimal access road repairs are underway. As roads are needed for responder, medical, and commodity movements, it becomes a heavy weight to balance when to take them out of service to restore and service them.
Moreover, the Transportation Sector is an extremely complex web of modal systems and touchpoints. Multimodal transportation and the proliferation of technology, such as intelligent transportation systems and artificial intelligence, is considered by some scholars to be a “marvel” of engineering connecting the broader Transportation Sector. As the sector moves from basic hardscape, flat, and linear systems into a mature, rapidly advancing, and complex prodigy of technology moving goods and services across the different modes, the threats from cyberattacks can severely hinder emergency response and recovery.
What Are This Sector’s Current and Emerging Vulnerabilities, Hazards, Risks, and Threats?
Pipeline systems transport almost all of the nation’s bulk liquid and natural gas to home and business retailers across the U.S. This is vital during emergencies and throughout harsh weather seasons where sustaining communities and industries is paramount. Texas experienced this in 2021 when over a million people went without power for days, and some outages lasted for weeks. Short delays or temporary shutdowns of pipeline systems can have devastating local and economic impacts, even resulting in localized panic buying.
Add to these examples of hackers infecting IT systems with ransomware attacks, and more than local inconveniences become widespread. One operator, Colonial Pipeline, paid hackers for a decryption key to allow the utility to get its IT systems back online. President Joe Biden declared a state of emergency for this incident. Had this situation not been resolved quickly, it could have resulted in panic buying, delayed interstate fuel movements, limited retail operations, and price gouging for supplies.
How Would a Human-Caused, Natural, or Technological Disaster Impact This Sector’s Preparedness, Response, and Recovery Efforts?
The growing interconnected nature of modal transportation via wired and wireless technology will increase its vulnerability to intentional or unintentional disruptions in service. For example, early-warning earthquake monitoring systems are being applied to all forms of transportation. But if the connections between these systems and public devices are compromised, the value of such systems could be questioned. Also, consider the number of bridges with electronic earthquake monitoring devices installed.
If these wired and wireless systems become compromised, physical inspections would be needed before the facility could be deemed safe for emergency response purposes. A response phase delay could be considerable. The human-caused threats remain a factor in protecting critical assets. For example, in 2021, a bridge between Chicago and Canada shut down due to a bomb threat. Authorities had to shut down the bridge to all traffic, severely disrupting daily flow and impacting businesses and communities.
What Else Do Emergency Preparedness, Response, and Recovery Professionals Need to Know About This Sector?
The Transportation Sector needs to be seen as a multimodal system that is interconnected in ways not always observable or directly actionable. Many states’ Departments of Transportation (DOT) do not own or operate modal systems outside of their state highway systems. While there are notable exceptions, DOTs become heavily involved in supporting other emergency functions by helping coordinate communication among the transportation modes to responders. To support response efforts, interagency coordination becomes paramount. But this represents its own challenge for the transportation community.
A DOT has a tremendous workload just opening and coordinating impacts on transportation networks. Without preestablished communications plans with the other ESFs, considerable delays in communicating status and needs will stress human and physical abilities. A related challenge is that much of the sector is operated with proprietary or security-related information. Advanced partnering with the modal community is needed to predetermine which information can be released and to whom, without compromising proprietary or security concerns.
Part of interagency cooperation also includes public-private partnerships. Obvious examples include private toll roads, Class A railroads, airlines, container ships, transit agencies, and more. The government may have some policy authority to help adjust movements, but private system operators are typically on the front line of such response and recovery efforts. Developing relationships with private sector partners is fundamentally important to all decision-makers.
Climate resiliency also cannot be overlooked. The national dialogue around critical infrastructure impacts that could be affected by changes in the climate and sea levels will continue for decades. Grant funds are becoming available to help advance this research, but discussions with the emergency transportation community need to advance concurrently. Investment firms are looking into investment decisions regarding large capital infrastructures. Over the next few years, estimating impacts may be costly and delay or disrupt infrastructure resilience and improvements. This should be emergency managers’ radar as they evaluate recovery efforts and resource positioning.
The multimodal Transportation Sector is a massive, complex, and dynamic industry. It combines lead and support roles, private and public entities, wired and non-wired technologies, and aged and new infrastructure. New partnerships must evolve to embrace the myriad of demands and threats placed on transportation. Minimizing physical threats, reducing human suffering (especially to those with access and functional needs), and continually staying ahead of cyberthreats will keep this sector forever pushing new boundaries.
Emergency preparedness professionals must continually plan and address each sub-sector and micro-sector for the communities in their jurisdiction. Regular training and exercising of these plans will remain paramount from a practical and psychological standpoint. The Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program (HSEEP) is a nationally known resource for state, local, and private entities to help with exercise planning, design, and execution. Key stakeholders working together more often will build greater community resilience.
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Nathan DiPillo currently serves as a California Governor’s Office appointee assigned to the California Office of Emergency Services as a Critical Infrastructure Analyst in the State Threat Assessment Center. Before state service, he functioned as a critical infrastructure specialist with the Department of Homeland Security, Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA). He also spent over 15 years with the Transportation Security Administration, where he assisted in standing up the agency with policy development, training, and recruitment. He has over 25 years in the emergency management and security industry, beginning as a resident firefighter/emergency medical technician. He also served with the California State Military Department, and Army National Guard in the 223rd Training Command ending his career as a Sergeant First Class. During that time, he served in many units, finishing his career attached to the 102nd Military Police Training Division in an Opposition Force Unit. He currently serves on a small-town planning commission and assisted in coordinating an emergency family communications group in his local area. He possesses a Master of Emergency Management/Homeland Security from the National University and other Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and military certifications. He currently serves as an advisor to the Domestic Preparedness Journal.
Derek Kantar serves as the Chief of Emergency Planning and Response with the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans). With over 30 years of public and private sector transportation planning experience, his current focus is helping integrate various multimodal transportation systems into Caltrans and the broader Emergency Support Function 1 (ESF-1) Transportation community through better collaboration during disaster response and recovery efforts. He received his BA and MA in Geography from California State University, Fullerton.