ANNAPOLIS- All trucks and commercial vehicles entering the southbound lanes of the Fort McHenry and Harbor tunnels in Baltimore are being pulled over and searched, while northbound vehicles were subject to random stops, said a Maryland Transportation Authority spokeswoman.
The security measures began Thursday night and will continue indefinitely, said Kerry Brandt, authority spokeswoman.
The inspections come in response to the FBI’s warning Thursday that additional terrorist attacks could be imminent in the United States or abroad.
“Overall we are at a heightened level of security at all of our facilities,” Brandt said.
The authority supervises a turnpike, two tunnels and four bridges in the state.
The increased security at bridges and tunnels is designed to prevent an attack in compact, highly populated areas.
Hazardous materials haulers face deeper scrutiny because of the dangerous potential of their loads.
Under regular circumstances, trucks would be inspected at state weigh stations, but because of the heightened security, they are being stopped randomly along the highway. With random stops truckers can not prepare for the search.
Such random stops began before the FBI warning, with Attorney General John Ashcroft’s announcement that 20 men who either illegally sought or obtained licenses to carry explosives, poisons or other hazardous materials may have had links to the World Trade Center hijacking suspects.
On all levels, state agencies are on alert. Even the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration, which issues permits to haul the materials, are paying close attention to new petitions.
Cheron Weacker, MVA spokeswoman, said agency’s approval process is one of the more rigorous in the country.
“We have been lucky no type of fraudulent information has gotten past us,” she said.
Nationwide efforts are underway to even further restrict hazardous materials haulers. U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta proposed legislation Wednesday to further strengthen security in the transport of the dangerous substances. Some of the legislation proposes to increase penalties for violations from $27,500 to $ 100,000. The legislation would also coordinate a national program of hazardous material carrier registrations and permits.
Trucking officials are understanding and accepting of their circumstance.
“We are going to have to just work some system out to get the products to businesses,” said the president of Maryland Motor Truck Association, Walter C. Thompson. “This is just something we have to adjust to.”
Thompson visited the Fort McHenry Tunnel search site and said the security restrictions are not isolated to the trucking industry. “Many businesses are feeling what we are feeling,” he said.
But Thompson did acknowledge the industry is feeling a pinch.
Truckers hauling loads in New York have found three-to-four-hour delays stemming from checks, said Thompson.
He has headed the nonprofit trade association of trucking company owners for 25 years and said scrutiny has never been so tense. During a recent board meeting this week Thompson advised members: “I told them to be prepared. Tell their employees to stay with their trucks, do not leave them unattended.” – 30 – CNS-10-12-01