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Opinion: Can mass transit be safe?

(The following editorial appeared on the USA Today website on July 8.)

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Thursday's attacks in London had to make millions of mass transit commuters in the USA wonder: "What's being done to prevent an attack on my train or bus or subway?"

The stark reality is, not much.

While the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, wrought a revolution in airline security, little has changed on the rails and roads in the four years since terrorists turned four jetliners into missiles.

This year, for instance, 84% of the Transportation Security Administration's $5.1 billion budget went to aviation security, according to the Congressional Research Service. That imbalance makes less sense today than it did right after 9/11. Now that cockpits are tougher to penetrate, terrorists have turned to "softer" targets, such as mass transit systems.

Before politicians and transit lobbyists turn the nation's security strategy upside down, however, they should carefully assess priorities and vulnerabilities.

It's easy to tick off those gaps. Passengers and baggage flow onto Amtrak trains each day unscreened. More than 9,000 miles of commuter and subway tracks crisscross cities largely unsecured. Freight trains carry hazardous chemicals through urban centers.

Some cities improved security after last year's terror attack on trains in Madrid. Los Angeles' system now has uniformed and undercover officers, bomb-sniffing dogs and surveillance cameras. New York has its "see something, say something" program to prod commuters to report suspicious activities or packages.

Good ideas all, but they are only as good as their execution. If subway authorities ask commuters to be vigilant, for instance, authorities must provide ways for them to report problems easily, as well as ensure quick responses.

Each year in the USA, about 26 billion passengers board the nation's rail, subway and bus systems — about 30 times the number who board planes. The systems are so vast that they can't be secured in the same way airlines are.

The primary responsibility for security lies not in Washington, but in the cities and states, where the needs and vulnerabilities can be understood best. Even so, TSA should consider allocating a greater share of its budget to rail and bus safety, and Washington can help with information and coordination. If money is the issue, raise taxes, just as security fees were added to airline tickets after 9/11. Or distribute homeland security funds more wisely.

London, with thousands of cameras surveying its system and phone boxes for reporting suspicious activities, is viewed as one of the world's leaders in subway security. Yet its rush hour was pierced by explosions. U.S. commuters deserve two things from their government: better security and honesty about what can and can't be achieved.

Friday, July 8, 2005

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