Safety, access always at odds
(The following article by Mary Curtius and Maura Reynolds was posted on the Los Angeles Times website on July 8.)
WASHINGTON -- In the nearly four years since the Sept. 11 attacks, security experts scouring American cities have found — as London learned Thursday — that public transit systems are among the most vulnerable and most difficult targets to defend from terrorists.
Yet such systems have received just $250 million in federal funding to beef up security since 2001, compared with $18 billion for the nation's airports. Regional transit systems have spent $2 billion of their own on security enhancement, industry officials say, but have identified $6 billion more in needed improvements.
Local officials have taken steps. In Southern California, for instance, transit operators have built security fences along some stretches of rail, installed sensors and cameras at stations and stepped up patrols.
New York City officers are sometimes assigned to every train at rush hour. The nation's capital has sensors to detect chemical attacks. In San Francisco's Bay Area Rapid Transit system, SWAT teams conduct random patrols.
But officials nationwide acknowledge that because buses and trains must be easily accessible to riders, it is nearly impossible to completely secure them.
"You do everything humanly possible to ensure people's safety. But it's an open society," said New York transit spokesman Tom Kelly. "You could do it like the airport, but nobody'd get there."
Thursday's attacks reignited debate over whether considerably more money should be spent on measures that officials argue could increase safety — and, if so, where the money would come from.
Transit has proved to be one of the toughest cost-benefit analyses in all of homeland security: Could massive capital expenditures really bring large improvements in security?
Many measures taken so far support general crime prevention as well as accident and disaster responses. But some expensive new systems sought by transit officials would be helpful only against terrorism.
"We're all kind of concerned that we may not be as equipped as we need to be," said Richard A. White, general manager of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, the nation's second-largest subway system. "We really feel like there hasn't been enough attention at the federal level."
Some terrorism experts say the federal funding disparity between mass-transit and air-travel security makes sense because the Sept. 11 attacks targeted airlines and because airports are far easier to secure than subways, trains, buses and ferries.
"We cannot realistically apply an aviation security model to surface transportation," said Brian Michael Jenkins, director of the Mineta Transportation Institute's National Transportation Security Center in San Jose and a terrorism expert at the Santa Monica-based Rand Corp. think tank.
"We have about 800 million passenger boardings a year on airplanes. We have 430 commercial airports," Jenkins said, compared with about 25 billion boardings on buses, trains and subways each year. "It would take an army" of screeners to check public transit passengers.
But public transit advocates said there were steps that would make the system significantly safer — and would not bankrupt the federal government.
"We think public transit riders are being treated as second-class citizens," said Rose Sheridan, a vice president of the American Public Transit Assn., which represents regional transit systems.
Local transit officials have wish lists of projects they say would enhance their ability to thwart a terrorist attack, as well as other dangers.
They would like to purchase new communications systems and to install more closed-circuit cameras on trains and city buses. They would like intruder detection systems at tunnel openings and other entrances. And larger cities want to install automatic chemical and radiological detectors like equipment used in Washington.
But few agencies have the resources to buy that kind of equipment.
Public transit agencies are funded by a combination of local, state and federal money. Fares provide about 36% of operating funds — which pay for personnel and the like — with state and local governments making up nearly all the rest. But when it comes to capital funding — which covers buildings, vehicles and so forth — the largest single source is the federal government, which provides 47%.
"The greatest challenge funding-wise is for capital measures," said Greg Hull, the American Public Transit Assn.'s director of operations, safety and security. "Our systems are limited in their ability to force such funding."
Because public transit systems are designed and operated regionally, there have been few national efforts to assess their vulnerability to a terrorist attack or to assess how much it would cost to make them safer.
An exception was a 2002 study by the General Accounting Office an investigative branch of Congress, which conducted a detailed survey of 10 major transit systems after the Sept. 11 attacks. The GAO study noted that one-third of terrorist attacks worldwide had targeted transportation systems, and of those, the largest number — 41% — had targeted buses.
The GAO report found that "insufficient funding is the most significant obstacle agencies face in trying to make their systems more safe and secure."
The Senate passed legislation in 2004 to spend $1.2 billion on public transit security, only to see it die in the House. And last month, the Senate Appropriations Committee lopped $50 million off the Bush administration's request for $150 million for public transit security.
But supporters of increased funding said they believed the London attacks might change the political dynamics on Capitol Hill. The appropriations bill comes to the Senate floor as early as next week, they said, and some of the administration's funding may be restored.
"We should do everything we can for security for Amtrak, for subways, for buses and so forth," said Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), who has advocated more spending on public transit security since Sept. 11.
As chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, Shelby was at London's Scotland Yard on Thursday for a meeting on terrorist financing when he learned of the attacks. For two hours, he could not locate his wife or granddaughter, who were sightseeing at the time of the attacks, he said.
"We're not going to hunker down and hide in caves," Shelby said. "We're going to make our systems as secure as we can, and we can do some more in the area of mass transit. I believe the incidents today in London point out our vulnerability, and maybe our voices will be heard with more clarity now. I'm hoping this will be a wake-up call for people who think transit is not vulnerable."
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said Congress had shirked its responsibilities. "If I were giving a grade to Congress on this, I would give it a D-minus. When it comes to rail security, we have done next to nothing.
Similar sentiments were voiced on Capitol Hill last year after terrorists attacked trains in Madrid in March. Congress did increase funding for transit security from $50 million to $150 million — but that was far less than the $6 billion over three years that regional transit authorities needed, according to the American Public Transit Assn.'s analysis of a survey it conducted in 2004.
Association President William W. Millar said regional transit authorities reported they needed $5.2 billion to install more surveillance cameras, improve tunnels and increase security around vehicle storage facilities. An additional $800 million was reported to be needed to hire more security officers, upgrade training and add bomb-sniffing dog patrols.
Millar said he disagreed with the argument that securing public transit is too logistically, financially or technologically daunting.
"You can take reasonable steps that would improve security and make the public feel more secure," he said.
Jim Hall, a National Transportation Safety Board chairman under President Clinton, agreed. "We ended up putting so much time and money into trying to address airline and airport security, we really haven't had a coordinated effort to look at all of our modes of transportation and try to be sure we have a well-thought-out program and plan," said Hall, now a transportation consultant in Washington.
Hall said the way to make the transit system more secure was "to take it in pieces" and "push a lot of this funding down into the local government and let local governments make security decisions for their residents."
Times staff writers Richard Simon, Steven Bodzin and Cynthia H. Cho in Washington; Elizabeth Mehren in Boston; Josh Getlin in New York; P.J. Huffstutter in Chicago; and Sharon Bernstein in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
Friday, July 8, 2005
Like us on Facebook at
Sign up for BLET News Flash Alerts