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Senate panel OKs $4.5 billion to ramp up transit security

(The following report by Lori Sharn of CongressDailyPM appeared at GovExec.com on May 6.)

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The Senate Banking Committee voted to spend $4.5 billion next year to build fences, install security cameras and take other steps to protect public transportation systems against attacks.

The bill clarifies that transit security would be handled by the Department of Homeland Security. Until now, much of the efforts to improve transit security since 9/11 have come through the Federal Transit Administration, which would remain involved in the process.

The Public Transportation Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, which quickly passed by a voice vote, would authorize $3.5 billion for capital improvements, $800 million for operational improvements, and $200 million for research in FY 2005. Another $700 million would go to operational improvements in FY 2006 and FY 2007.

"We just have to look around the world to see that this is a target favored by terrorists," said Jack Reed, D-R.I.

Rail and transit security has taken on a new sense of urgency since the March 11 train bombings in Madrid killed 191 people, and Congress is starting to respond. The Senate Commerce Committee voted April 8 to authorize $1.2 billion for rail security over 5 years. The House Railroads subcommittee held a security hearing Wednesday.

While the Senate Commerce bill addresses security on Amtrak and freight railroads, the Banking Committee legislation would cover other transit systems, including subways, light rail lines, and city buses.

Fourteen million people use these public transportation systems every day in the United States. Yet, according to the Banking Committee's bill, the federal government has invested only $0.006 in security per public transportation passenger, compared with $9.16 per aviation passenger. The American Public Transportation Association recently identified $6 billion in critical security needs.

"The challenge is to heighten the level of security while still maintaining a basic level of accessibility that a system open to the public requires," said Banking Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, R-Ala.

This bill, Shelby says, "puts that difficult task in the hands of the experts at the Department of Homeland Security," though the FTA will remain involved in the process on a consultation basis.

Under the bill, the Department of Homeland Security would become responsible for determining the threat level for bus and rail systems. DHS would establish security improvement priorities and then award grants directly to public transportation agencies. Capital grants could be used for communications and surveillance equipment, public address systems, vehicle tracking equipment, canine units and other bomb and chemical detection technology. Operational grants could be used for employee training, evacuation drills and public awareness campaigns.

Within 60 days after the bill becomes law, Transportation and Homeland Security departments would enter into a memorandum of understanding clarifying their security roles and responsibilities. The bill also directs the Secretary of Homeland Security to ensure that the Transportation Department is notified of any credible threats against public transportation, and to fully fund the Information Sharing and Analysis Center for Public Transportation.

Shelby said finding the money for the legislation will be a challenge. "Look at what happened in Spain," Shelby said. "We have no alternative," he added.

Friday, May 7, 2004

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