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Calif. lawmakers tout bills to strengthen rail, transit safety

(The following story by Michael Cabanatuan appeared on the San Francisco Chronicle website on May 26.)

SAN FRANCISCO -- Sen. Barbara Boxer and Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland, vowed Tuesday to push for federal legislation that would boost security on passenger trains and mass transit in the wake of the deadly bombing of a Madrid commuter train in March.

"Let's get this show on the road,'' said Boxer, D-Calif., standing in front of the Oakland Amtrak station in Jack London Square. "We were warned on Sept. 11 that our airlines were targets. We were warned in March that our trains are a target. Let's get started.''

A pair of bills in the Senate, and one in the House, would provide millions in grants for Amtrak and transit agencies to help protect their systems against potential terrorist attack.

The Rail Transportation Security Act, passed by the Senate Commerce Committee last month, would authorize $350 million in grants to Amtrak and freight railroads, and would be distributed throughout the country based on ridership. The Public Transportation Terrorism Prevention Act, approved by the Senate Banking Committee on May 6, would allot $1.2 billion in grants to transit systems over the next three years.

In the House, the Safe Trains Act would provide $2.8 billion over the next three years for passenger rail and mass transit security improvements.

The money could be used for such things as canine patrols, track surveillance systems, train locating devices, security training for employees, communication systems, public awareness campaigns and police or security officer overtime pay.

Before their press conference Tuesday, Boxer and Lee toured an Amtrak maintenance complex being constructed in Oakland. It will bring maintenance from an open rail yard into a secured building. At the press conference, they were joined by Bay Area transportation officials.

Protecting rail systems against terrorists is particularly important to the Bay Area, said Lee, "given our region's reliance on transit like BART, Amtrak and AC Transit.''

California, said Boxer, has the highest Amtrak ridership outside of the Northeast, carrying 9 million passengers a year. Steve Kinsey, chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, said the Bay Area has more than 400 miles of passenger train and transit rail -- "the largest rail system in the western United States."

A rail security bill failed to pass Congress in 2001, but Boxer said she was optimistic the legislation would succeed this time.

"Since Madrid, we have a different attitude,'' she said. "People saw what happened. I hope the images of Madrid will not be forgotten by my colleagues."

Wednesday, May 26, 2004

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