Univ. of Arkansas transportation center eligible for security study

Proposal would give six institutions $72 million to study how to protect infrastructure

News Arkansas Democrat Gazette July 31, 2007
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The Mack-Blackwell Rural Transportation Center, located at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, would share in $72 million under a congressional proposal designed to protect the nation’s infrastructure from terrorist attacks, the Arkansas Democrat Gazette reported.

A joint U. S. House-Senate conference report aimed at putting the 9/11 commission’s recommendations into law listed five other institutions that would share the money. The report includes $18 million a year over four years to study how to protect transportation structures from attack, the newspaper reported.

Negotiating the bill last week, Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) designated Mack-Blackwell as a “National Center for Transportation Security,” qualifying it for participation in the studies.

“We’re still in shock,” Kevin Hall, the center’s executive director, and head of the university’s civil-engineering department, said Friday. “Obviously, we’re thrilled about the news and appreciate Senator Pryor looking out for us.”

Center officials said the legislation is waiting on President Bush’s signature, which could come as early as this week, according to the newspaper.

With its rural transportation background, the Mack-Blackwell Center is poised to study security issues related to transportation, Pryor said.

“It makes perfect sense for the Mack-Blackwell Center to lead the way in rural transportation security,” Pryor said in a news release. “This new funding will enable the center to expand its current research to meet some of the major security challenges we face today.”

The other five colleges eligible to participate in the studies are Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.; the University of Connecticut in Storrs; Texas Southern University in Houston; Tougaloo College in Jackson, Miss.; and Long Island University in Brooklyn, N. Y.

“We are one of the few that focuses on rural transportation,” Dana Ledbetter, communications director for Mack-Blackwell, said. “A lot of those others focus on other areas. Eighty percent of [Arkansas] highways are in rural areas. That can leave us really wide open for security issues.”

The state is responsible for about 6,000 miles of highway.

Rural transportation structures, such as highways and bridges, often have strategic significance. Ledbetter recalled the 2002 collapse of an I-40 bridge in Oklahoma when a barge struck, temporarily halting truck traffic on the crucial east-west artery. Fourteen people died in the collapse, according to the Gazette.

The center has already developed expertise in hazardous materials transport, bridge protection and evacuation during national disasters, Hall said. Much of that knowledge can address security issues, he said.

“I really believe we’re going to be effective,” Hall said. “I think we can bring a lot to the table, bring some expertise to bear on this.”

The center also has already worked with the U. S. Department of Homeland Security, which would supervise the funding, the newspaper reported. The center completed a project evaluating the vulnerabilities of the rural transportation network and is working to develop ways to secure parts of the network at a “reasonable cost,” Ledbetter said.

Since its creation in 1991 as a national center focusing on education and research on rural transportation issues, Mack-Blackwell has funded more than 100 transportation research studies.

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