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U.S. transit systems vulnerable, panel told

(The following article by Tom Ramstack was posted on the Washington Times website on June 23.)

WASHINGTON -- The federal government has neglected the security needs of the nation's public transit systems, according to witnesses at a congressional hearing yesterday.

Congress is focusing more of its attention on terrorism risks to public transit as a result of the March 11 train bombings in Madrid and because of continuing threats against passenger rail systems.

Transit industry leaders told the House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee on highways, transit and pipelines yesterday they are unable to handle all their security concerns without more federal assistance.

Richard White, Metro general manager, said Washington's transit agency is a "national security asset" because of its response to terrorism risks, but that it still needs $150 million to complete its security system.

"In the last two years, [the Department of Homeland Security] has spent over $9 billion on aviation security and only $115 million on transit security," Mr. White said. "Yet transit carries 16 times more passengers per day."

Among Metro's unfunded security needs are better "weapons of mass destruction" detection systems, intrusion sensors, training for emergencies and more video cameras for buses, he said.

Since the September 11 attacks, security improvements to Metro have included chemical sensors in stations, bomb-containment trash cans and digital cameras on buses, Mr. White said.

Subcommittee Chairman Tom Petri, a Wisconsin Republican, said testimony from the witnesses "will lay the groundwork for the development of public-transportation security legislation."

He also said one security problem was a lack of clear guidelines among federal officials and transit agencies on how to handle an emergency.

The Federal Aviation Administration developed a "memorandum of understanding" with the Transportation Security Administration describing each agency's duties in situations such as the September 11 attacks.

The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) has no such document but is developing it at the request of Congress.

"How much more potential for miscommunication is there, then, for a [Department of Transportation] agency that doesn't have any formal documentation of its relationship with [the Transportation Security Administration]," Mr. Petri said.

Representatives of federal agencies warned against trying to find easy answers to the complex problem of terrorism.

"Public transportation is designed as an open system," said Robert Jamison, FTA deputy administrator. "There's no technological quick fix for security concerns."

The congressmen asked about threat levels for public transit.

"It will change on a daily basis," said Chet Lunner, TSA assistant administrator. "It's impossible for me to tell you in five years where that threat will stand."

The Madrid train bombings that killed 198 persons "strengthened our resolve to improve our security posture against similar attacks," Mr. Lunner said.

Forty-two percent of terrorist attacks worldwide in recent years have occurred on public transit systems, the witnesses said.

The United States has about 6,000 public transportation agencies that carry more than 14 million passengers daily.

After the September 11 attacks, the FTA established a security program that included vulnerability assessments of the 37 largest transit systems, grants for emergency drills and an employee-awareness training program for 46,000 transit employees.

Nevertheless, the American Public Transportation Association recently estimated the security needs of 120 transit agencies participating in its survey at $6 billion.

Several bills are already pending in Congress on transit security.

They include S. 2453, the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee's Public Transportation Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, which authorizes $3.5 billion in capital grants, $1.5 billion for operating assistance and $200 million for research. Other bills take similar approaches.

Wednesday, June 23, 2004

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