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Security spending on ground transportation is faulted

(The following article by Brian Knowlton was posted on the International Herald Tribune website on July 7.)

WASHINGTON -- Despite the sharp increase in spending on domestic security since 2001, the protection of subways, buses and trains still lags far behind the much higher-profile efforts to guard aviation against terrorism, transportation specialists say.

According to a House of Representatives report last year, the federal government has spent an average $9.16 per passenger on aviation security since 9/11, while spending less than 1 cent per transit rider.

Unless an incident occurs or the terror alert is raised, rail travelers typically see nothing like the heavy security presence that has transformed airports and air travel in the United States. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff sought today to reassure Americans about transit safety, even as he announced that the five-stage national warning system had been raised one step, to orange, the second-highest, to reflect the perceived threat specifically to transportation systems.

"I think our transit systems are safe," Mr. Chertoff told reporters. "We operate from a baseline of preparedness that is much, much stronger than it was before 9/11 and, in fact, than it was before Madrid," a reference to bomb attacks on trains there in March 2004 that killed nearly 200 people.

Secretary Chertoff urged people to continue using mass transit, but with higher than usual awareness.

Although security for mass transit systems has generally been strengthened since 9/11, a recent study by the Brookings Institution cited what it portrayed as striking areas of transit vulnerability in the United States. There are 600,000 bridges and tunnels in the country, including 500 deemed critical hubs, and millions of people congregate or pass through crowded stations and terminals every day.

"There are hundreds of sites where terrorists could cause hundreds or even thousands of casualties or severely disrupt economic activity," said the Brookings report, by Arnold M. Howitt of Harvard University and Jonathan Makler, now an independent transportation adviser.

In a CNN interview, former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani of New York said that "it's hard to have 100 percent protection" of an urban transit system - "In fact, it's impossible."

Surface transit is also particularly difficult to protect because of the need to keep it open for the rapid movement of very large numbers of people. That makes airport-style security screening essentially impracticable.

Domestic security spending has nearly tripled since 2001, rising from $16.9 billion to $47.4 billion this fiscal year, but it continues to concentrate by a large margin on commercial aviation, which was used to mount the 9/11 attacks.

The United States Transportation Security Agency focuses predominantly on aviation. "Funding commitments to aviation security remain the agency's principal responsibility, accounting for more than 95 percent of its budget request for 2005," the Brookings report said.

Americans make nine billion ground transit trips a year, while they flew on commercial flights 689 million times last year, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

Mr. Chertoff, asked today whether spending on transit security was sufficient, did not directly respond. "We're going to be coming out with some policy proposals," he said. "I wouldn't make a policy decision driven by a single event."

Mr. Makler, one of the report's authors, said that serious security measures were being taken at every transportation level. But because the Sept. 11 attacks involved airplanes, and United States transit hubs have yet to be hit, "the spotlight is principally on aviation security."

"If there ever was something domestically against surface transit, that would certainly elicit a much higher response than if it happens abroad," Mr. Makler said in a phone interview from Portland, Oregon. "That's the grudging nature of it."

But attention to the problem in transportation agencies was very high, he said, and "a lot of people are trying to create a sense of urgency."

The federal government is not solely responsible for transportation safety. Local, regional or national systems have programs of their own. The Brookings report praises, for example, the Boston-area transit authority for close attention to security.

But almost every transit system in the country has faced severe financial pressures in recent years. Even a city as large as San Francisco, with 800,000 people and a far-flung transportation system, has a dedicated transit police force of only 150.

Friday, July 8, 2005

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