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N.J. officials push rail security measure

(The following article by Maya Kremen was posted on the Herald News website on June 14.)

LITTLE FALLS, N.J. -- Anyone can get on a train; all you need is a ticket. But rail lines get only a fraction of the federal funding for safety that airlines get.

For every cent spent keeping train commuters safe from a bomb or chemical attack, about $10 is spent on plane passengers.

That's something that needs to change soon in order to avoid a Madrid-sized disaster, Reps. Bill Pascrell Jr., D-Paterson, and Robert Menendez, D-Hoboken, said at a press conference Monday at the township's main train station.

Evoking the March 2004 bombings of four trains in Madrid, Spain, that killed nearly 200 people at the peak of rush hour, Pascrell and Menendez touted a bill they are co-sponsoring that would provide $10 billion in federal funding to beef up national rail and bus security over the next five years.

"Imagine what would happen if the Madrid attack had happened on our soil," Pascrell said. "We don't need to wait. Our bill would take action."

The bill calls for $570 million to update the fire safety and emergency systems in the Hudson and East River tunnels. Amtrak would receive $62.5 million for systemwide improvements, including the hiring of additional police officers, improvement of its communication system, and the tools to compile a watch list of suspicious riders.

NJ Transit would be eligible for a piece of the $800 million allotted to transit agencies for operating expenses, including hiring additional police.

About $5 billion would go toward capital projects. The bill also would apportion money for feasibility studies, research into new security technologies, increased safety measures on freight carriers and improvements to tunnels in Baltimore and Washington.

The money allotted to transit agencies would help defray what local governments now spend on security, Pascrell and Menendez said. The Passaic County Sheriff's Department's budget alone has gone up by $20 million since 2001. Sheriff Jerry Speziale has credited the increase in part to additional costs of safety, like the officers he assigned to patrol trains with bomb-sniffing dogs. Though the department's revenue has also gone up, county officials are worried about containing costs.

"Every time we move to a different level of alert, Jerry Speziale and the Jerry Speziales around the country have to change modes - it costs money," said Pascrell. "The federal government has an obligation to see that we're adequately prepared."

Since the 9/11 attacks, the Sheriff's Department has intensified security on trains and buses, and its K-9 unit patrols the trains daily. But Speziale said he would like to go further, equipping officers with more advanced technology, such as Geiger counters to detect radiation, and putting more officers on trains.

"Right now it's a rotational thing," Speziale said. "We're able to show the terrorists that we're here. But I want to show them we're here every day."

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

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