Security Concerns Silence Cells

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By Robert MacMillan
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 12, 2005; 9:03 AM

If you see suspicious activity on your commute into Manhattan from New Jersey, don't call the police. It can wait until you get out of the tunnel.

Or at least that's the early line on a rather confusing post-London bombings story. Here's the recap, based on what we know to be true right now:

New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey cut cell-phone service last Thursday in the tunnels that link Manhattan with New Jersey, Brooklyn and Queens.

Security was the reason. The MTA runs the Brooklyn-Battery and Queens Midtown tunnels. The Port Authority supervises the Lincoln and Holland tunnels. We're talking a lot of vehicles and plenty of opportunities for terrorist mayhem.

Not only that, mass transportation systems are working under an "Orange" alert after Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff raised the threat level last week after the London attacks.

The New York Post and the Daily News ran stories on the cell-phone-tunnel matter Monday. USA Today followed up with a national report quoting an official at Verizon Wireless, the sole provider of cell service in the N.Y.-area transit tunnels:

"Verizon Wireless spokesman Jim Gerace says his company assumes it was to avoid a repeat of the London attacks, in which terrorists may have used phones to coordinate or detonate bombs. Gerace says the Port Authority has been mum about when, or even if, it plans to restore power. The agency has only told the company that power will stay off 'until further notice,' Gerace says."

The article said that the tunnels have been wired for cellular service for about a decade. The service has never been shut down before, including after Sept. 11, 2001.

Here's where things get funny: MTA spokesman Brian Dolan told me late Monday that his agency restored cell service to its tunnels. The decision to shut it off last Thursday was the result of a "miscommunication" between the authority and the New York Police Department. An NYPD spokesman confirmed that it never asked anyone to cancel service in any tunnel.

Fuhgeddaboutit.

Or not... the Port Authority's Lou Martinez told me that the outage will continue, either for as long as the Orange Level endures or until the authority decides otherwise. "We feel it is the proper decision" for security's sake, he said.

What about the MTA and the other tunnels? Was the Port Authority aware of the original miscommunication that prompted the wireless phone service to be shut down? Yes, Martinez said, and as far as the Port Authority is concerned, the MTA can do whatever it wants; the Authority's tunnels will remain cell-free zones.


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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