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M.T.A. slow to spend money on transit security

(The following article by Sewell Chan was posted on the New York Times website on July 10.)

NEW YORK -- In December 2002, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority announced it had completed a lengthy assessment of potential threats to the city's transportation infrastructure, from subway lines to major bridges. The authority, which had begun the study in the weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, said it was committing nearly $600 million to improve the security of the sprawling transportation network.

But to date, two and a half years after that announcement and nearly four years after Sept. 11, only a small fraction - about $30 million as of March - has been spent, and nearly all of that on consultants and additional study.

Yesterday, a day after a series of deadly subway and bus bombings in London, authority officials would divulge little about their security efforts, saying they were fearful the information could be misused. They did say, however, that by the end of this year they would have a plan to spend more than $300 million of the state and federal money they have available on eight projects - including strengthening a half-dozen transit facilities. But those projects may take several more years to complete.

The authority's delay has meant it has yet to put into place the kinds of straightforward, if expensive, improvements that transit agencies in other cities have undertaken. Washington and Boston, for instance, have employed sensors to detect the presence of biochemical agents in their subway systems. Houston's buses have closed-circuit television cameras that can transmit live information to the authorities. Atlanta's transit agency has upgraded its radios to allow it to communicate with those used by police and rescue workers.

Well before the London attacks, a range of city and state officials had begun to complain that the authority has been too slow to guard itself against potential terrorist threats.

"New Yorkers are clearly concerned with the danger lurking over our heads, since our subway system is a prime target for similar attacks," City Councilman John C. Liu, Democrat of Queens, said on Thursday, shortly after word came of the London explosions. In March, Mr. Liu, who is chairman of the Transportation Committee, held a hearing in which he demanded, unsuccessfully, an accounting of the security projects.

"The M.T.A. can't take forever to get its act together," he added.

Assemblyman Dov Hikind, a Brooklyn Democrat who secured $1.2 million in state money in May to pay for 120 closed-circuit television cameras at nine stations in his district, called on the authority to install such devices throughout the system. "Potential terrorists need to see that they are being watched 24/7, if they are casing our subways," he said.

To be certain, much has been done to reassure the public, and enlist its help, to prevent terrorism on the city's transit system. The New York Police Department and the authority's own 700-member police force have worked closely to improve the visibility, aggressiveness and effectiveness of law enforcement on subways, buses and railroads.

Yesterday, the city's Police Department announced it would continue to have at least one officer on every subway train during the commuter rush, which began after the London bombings, until next Friday. And in December 2002, the authority unveiled a public awareness campaign featuring a slogan: "If you see something, say something." The message seems to be working. On Thursday, the police recorded 28 calls about suspicious packages in the transit system, according to Paul J. Browne, a police spokesman.

Far less, though, has been done in purchasing and installing equipment to protect the system from attack. Part of the problem is the open nature of transit systems, which by their nature cannot strictly control access, as is the goal in commercial aviation.

Brian M. Jenkins, a counterterrorism consultant at the Rand Corporation who has studied terrorist attacks on transit systems across the world, said that transit agencies have to work on four tasks simultaneously - deterrence, prevention, mitigation of casualties and prompt response by emergency workers in the event of an attack - and not just on public awareness.

"Apart from Israel, there is no public that has been trained to be more vigilant than London's," he said, citing the Irish Republican Army's repeated attacks on the London Underground since the 1970's. "It didn't prevent the bombings this week, and that's the reality."

Mr. Jenkins said New York's subways are among the most difficult to protect. "The New York system is an old system and it does not facilitate surveillance," he said, noting the extensive columns, narrow passageways and wide design variations across the 468 stations.

Mortimer L. Downey, who was the authority's executive director from 1986 to 1993 and maintains ties to several officials there, said, "They've got some decent plans on technology, but I think they're behind on getting some of it done." While he praised the public awareness campaign, he said of the lag in spending: "It's a little surprising. I would hope that it's because they're trying to make sure they're going to do it wisely."

A review of authority records, and interviews with people involved in its counterterrorism planning, suggests that the authority's major tangible accomplishment in this area is a stack of reports and studies produced since the mid-1990's.

A subway firebomb in Lower Manhattan in 1994, a sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995, and a foiled plot to bomb the New York subway in 1997 all added urgency to the authority's growing concerns about terrorism. Officials launched a $130 million effort to upgrade the radio systems used by police officers along the Long Island Rail Road and the Metro-North Railroad, which ran on different frequencies.

But the authority's spokesman, Tom Kelly, said last night that the project was never completed because of technical difficulties. A new effort to integrate the authority's radio systems with those of other state law enforcement agencies is under way, he said.

In the months after Sept. 11, two threat assessments were completed, one by the security firm Kroll and the other by ManTech International Corporation, a defense contractor. That December, the authority hired a veteran police commander, Louis R. Anemone, to oversee its security efforts.

Under Mr. Anemone, the authority began talks with the Army Communications-Electronic Command, a unit based in Fort Monmouth, N.J., that focuses on advanced technology projects. Mr. Anemone and his deputy, Nicholas B. Casale, were fired in May 2003 after a dispute not related to security; each man has filed a lawsuit.

Following that controversy, the authority had to return to square one. William A. Morange, who was named its security director in July 2003 after a 39-year career at the Police Department, reversed course, and decided that the proposals by the Army and by defense contractors were not feasible.

In December 2003, a year after the authority's board approved a $591 million plan to be drawn from state and federal money, the authority asked for bids from contractors. It would take another four months, though, for the authority to approve major spending - and that was $100 million worth of consulting work designed to produce the best ideas for actual security projects.

According to the authority, one of the four engineering consultants it had hired was fired, after a spokesman for the firm was quoted in The New York Post describing a plan to place carbon-fiber composite sheeting on the interior surfaces of subway tunnels to contain the force of a potential blast.

The remaining consultants are now, with hundreds of millions still unspent, drawing up plans to strengthen transit facilities against explosives, restrict access to sensitive facilities and detect intrusion into areas where the public is not permitted. They also are looking at the feasibility of surveillance devices, communications centers and various state-of-the-art sensors, according to an authority document describing the contract.

Mr. Kelly, the authority's spokesman, said the authority has identified 57 projects, of which 20 have priority. The first 8 projects include efforts to, in the parlance of terrorism security, "harden" one major station, two train terminals, a tunnel and a bridge. They are projected to cost $317 million, a sum that includes $143 million in grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency that must be spent by next year.

Meanwhile, Senators Charles E. Schumer and Hillary Rodham Clinton called this week for more federal spending on transit security. Asked yesterday about the authority's progress in spending the money already available, Mr. Schumer said, "They've done a poor job spending their capital money. I understand they have long and elaborate procedures, but when it comes to homeland security we ought to speed things up a little bit."

Mr. Morange, the authority's security chief, said progress was at hand.

"We've got to make sure this money is spent right. Now we are really on the move," he said. "I want to make sure that when we go out and spend this money to protect our customers, we won't have to come back three, four or five years from now because we made a mistake."

Kareem Fahim contributed reporting for this article.

Monday, July 11, 2005

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