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U.S. mass transit is security, spending challenge

(Bloomberg News circulated the following article by Nicholas Johnston on July 8.)

WASHINGTON -- The 13 million people who ride public transportation every day in the U.S. are an inviting terrorist target that is difficult to defend and, so far, a low priority for federal spending.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the U.S. has spent less than $550 million to safeguard bus, subway, ferry and light-rail service in American communities compared with more than $22 billion spent on airline security, according to Representative David Obey, a Wisconsin Democrat. Securing mass-transit systems is an overwhelming challenge, terrorism experts said, because of the passenger volume and the number of entry points.

``We can't turn our public transit system into hardened targets,'' California Republican Representative Christopher Cox, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said in an interview. ``There would be significant resistance to the kind of passenger screening we have at airports for riding a subway.''

Yesterday's bombings of London's subway and bus system, which killed at least 50 people and injured more than 700, and a similar attack in Madrid last year highlight the desire of terrorist groups to target difficult-to-defend public transit systems where few passengers are screened for weapons or bombs.

Explosive detectors installed by the U.S. government at some airports take 8 seconds to screen passengers. Herding millions of public transit passengers through such detectors each day would be a task dwarfing airport security, said Larry Johnson, a former Central Intelligence Agency and U.S. State Department anti- terrorism official.

`No Screening'

``You can get onto Amtrak, carrying an automatic weapon disguised as a map case. There is no screening,'' said Johnson, now chief executive of Berg Associates LLC, a Washington-based security firm. Screening ``creates significant delays and greatly increased cost. The question is, how far are we willing to go to be inconvenienced?''

Amtrak, the U.S. passenger railroad, has started requiring tags on luggage as airlines do. Rail passengers also must have photo identification when buying tickets and traveling.

``These types of attacks are difficult to entirely prevent,'' Clifford Black, a spokesman for the railroad, said in an interview. ``Ground transportation is similar to any place of public assembly. It's accessible for the users as well as to those who would do harm. There is a level of practicality that prohibits airport-style security because ground transportation is interconnected.''

`Common Sense' Response

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security yesterday raised the terror alert level for U.S. mass transit systems to orange, or ``high.'' Secretary Michael Chertoff said transit systems are safe and called the decision to raise their terror threat level one notch a ``common sense'' response.

``I wouldn't make a policy decision driven by a single event,'' he told reporters in Washington. ``This is not an occasion for undue anxiety.''

Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District of Columbia's non-voting delegate in Congress who backs more funding for transit security, said its current state is ``pathetic,'' and that it's unfortunate that it may take another attack before government agencies take the necessary steps.

``After 9/11, I had hoped that we would never be in the position of saying `I told you so,'' said Holmes Norton, a Democrat. ``How close does it have to be before Congress decides to do for rail and mass transit what we have done for aviation?''

Legislation Sought

Six times more people use public transit each day than fly on commercial airplanes, according to the American Public Transit Association, a Washington industry group. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, aviation security has received 40 times more federal funding, Obey said.

A Senate subcommittee last month cut transit security funds for the 2006 fiscal year to $100 million from $150 million in 2005 fiscal year in the Homeland Security budget.

``Transit security is underfunded,'' said Dan Prieto, research director of Harvard University's homeland security partnership initiative in Cambridge, Massachusetts. ``If you ask the state and local officials that operate the systems, they will say their biggest impediment is lack of funding.''

Holmes Norton is pressing for $3.5 billion in additional rail security funding over the next three years. Senator Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, said he will try next week to attach amendments to the Homeland Security budget that would double the proposed funding for rail and mass transit security to $200 million from $100 million and add $20 million extra for bus systems.

The American Public Transit Association estimated in 2004 that $6 billion is needed to increase transit security.

The money would go toward buying things like security cameras for transit stations and funding increased patrols with explosive-sniffing dogs. It would also be used to evaluate transit vulnerabilities, Holmes Norton said, which is not something comprehensively studied.

``With aviation, you have a security infrastructure that we've been building since the 1970s,'' said Kathleen Sweet, an aviation-security professor with Purdue University in Indiana. ``With rail, we're starting from scratch.''

Friday, July 8, 2005

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