Transit tech now in national security discussions

Posted on September 16, 2019 by James Blue, Publisher

Concerns have recently culminated in bills that ban any use of federal transit funds to buy rolling stock from Chinese-owned companies.
Concerns have recently culminated in bills that ban any use of federal transit funds to buy rolling stock from Chinese-owned companies.CRRC

In the last edition I discussed how public transportation professionals, in both government agencies and private sector organizations that serve them, are engaged in furthering multiple missions, which has both challenges and opportunities for the industry. A recent twist in this trend has been the concerns about how some transit applications of information technologies can be used by foreign governments to spy on Americans. Frankly, it is only the latest reflection that what we do as an industry has national security implications, beyond the industry’s impact on economic security.

Do transit technologies threaten privacy?
The arguments for transit as national security policy have long ranged from energy independence that come with transit investments to transit’s role in arresting climate change, which the Pentagon sees as a security issue. Two other arguments are a little more direct, however. The first of these relates to effects on international trade and our growing economic competition with our trading partners, especially the challenges posed by Chinese competition of late. But the second concern, however dubious, is one mentioned above: that Chinese technologies in these buses and trainsets can be used to spy on American riders.

These concerns have recently culminated in bills that ban any use of federal transit funds to buy rolling stock from Chinese-owned companies. The bills’ proponents say the ban is needed to address both issues — to protect an American industry from unfairly subsidized Chinese competition as well as guard against foreign surveillance. In fact, the most recent House version of this ban showed up in this year’s defense authorization bill, and the House Transportation & Infrastructure Chairman waived his jurisdictional prerogative, allowing it to go forward.

As with last year’s attempt, the Senate version remains in its transportation appropriations bill and still only applies to future funding from the formula programs; the only discretionary program covered is the competitive grant piece of the bus and bus facility program. And the Senate’s ban only applies to rolling stock (railcars and buses), ironically leaving out other equipment such as communications systems. It also applies only to new contracts, while the House language appears to be retroactive.

Transit-national security history is not new
Such considerations have had a long history. What is new is its focus on a single country, China. While the politics of this bill seem to give it greater likelihood of passage this year, it takes its place in a long history of involving transit in defense and national security. That relationship will likely only get more involved in the future.

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