Heightened security after the Paris terror attacks, including checkpoints and patrols on New York City bridges, bomb-sniffing dogs at Penn Station and increased airport bag checks, could complicate this week's busy holiday getaway, officials said Monday.
Concerns over terror groups such as the Islamic State led the State Department to issue a travel alert Monday urging Americans to "exercise vigilance when in public places or using transportation."
"Be aware of immediate surroundings and avoid large crowds or crowded places. Exercise particular caution during the holiday season and at holiday festivals or events," the State Department said. "Be prepared for additional security screening and unexpected disruptions."
The AAA predicts that a record 46.9 million people -- 300,000 more than last year -- will travel 50 miles outside their home this week. And Transportation Security Administration spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein said TSA officials "expect this to be the busiest Thanksgiving travel season in terms of passengers through the checkpoint that we've ever seen."
One law enforcement official said police departments in the New York City region are taking a "layered approach" to transportation security, with everything from checkpoints to patrols he said were marked by "high visibility and unpredictability."
At area bridges and tunnels, that means fixed and roving police patrols, close monitoring of cameras and license plate readers, and surveillance by aviation units using thermal imaging. In subways, police will check bags randomly and swipe them for nitrates or other explosives. And NYPD harbor units will stop unfamiliar boats or those loitering near bridges.
"Obviously transportation is the most difficult to protect and secure. But whatever NYPD can do and is doing is certainly helping to deter that threat," said Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), a member of the House Homeland Security Committee and chairman of the Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence. "I can't imagine something happening like Paris without NYPD being there within seconds . . . That goes for bridges and tunnels."
And while the forecast for weather and gas prices will be on the side of travelers this year, the increased security by transportation providers could slow things down for some.
Since the Nov. 13 terrorist killings of 130 people in Paris, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which controls major area airports including John F. Kennedy and LaGuardia, has been on heightened alert with increased patrols and bag checks. The agency said Monday that travelers should allow extra time for checking in.
Rail service providers are also stepping up security heading into their busiest season of the year. Amtrak spokesman Craig Schulz said the agency expects to carry roughly as many as the 772,000 customers it carried over Thanksgiving week in 2014, but will do so this year with a "robust security presence."
"They always step up their presence during major holidays. But, of course, given world events recently, those efforts are that much more important," said Schulz, adding that the increased security won't necessarily translate into extra travel time for passengers. "But . . . if we need to delay a train to do an inspection, we, of course, are going to make the safer choice."
Riders on the Long Island Rail Road, which will run 11 extra eastbound trains out of Penn Station on Wednesday, will also notice extra police at Penn Station, including in the form of extra MTA Police patrols and canine units. But, spokesman Aaron Donovan said he didn't "think there should be any additional delays because of security."
"You'll see a lot more of us out there," MTA Police Benevolent Association president Michael O'Meara said. "But the normal, everyday traveler should not be inconvenienced, except for the crowds."
To enhance security on commuter railroads, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo Monday announced the hiring of 46 additional MTA Police officers for about $3 million, calling them "essential pieces in our fight against terrorism." However, the new officers aren't expected to be in place for several months, O'Meara said.
As part of the state's "See Something, Say Something" transportation security campaign, Cuomo also announced the launch of a new mobile application that will let travelers report suspicious activity to authorities using photos and noted from their phones.
"This app works just like a traditional telephone crime tip line or hotline, except it is available with the touch of a finger on a handheld device," State Police Superintendent Joseph D'Amico said. "If you see something that may be linked to terrorism, send something. Your tip could provide valuable information that could prevent a tragedy."
The app will not replace 911 for emergency situations.
Meanwhile, travelers looking to avoid delays by driving may not have it any better, according to Robert Sinclair Jr., spokesman for AAA, which Monday released a study showing that the Lincoln Tunnel and the roadways just east of the George Washington Bridge are, respectively, the nation's eighth- and ninth-most clogged roads.
"Getting in the car might be an alternative, but it will be a slow one," said Sinclair, who did not expect that increased security measures should add to motorists' delays. "I think the delays motorists will see will definitely be because of congestion."