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Commuters cautious after London terror bombings

(The following article by Amy Le and Matt Schmitz was distributed by the Pioneer Press Online on July 14.)

PARK RIDGE, Ill. --After last week's deadly bomb attacks in London left at least 50 people dead and more than 300 injured, Park Ridge commuters may have noticed Chicago police and transit security making their presence more visible at train and bus stations across the city.

The Department of Homeland Security raised the terror alert for transit systems from yellow to orange (high) July 7, triggering a number of CTA security measures that are based on plans implemented after the Sept. 11 attacks, said transit authority spokeswoman Ibis Antongiorgi.

The heightened alert covers regional and inner-city passenger rail, subways and metropolitan bus systems throughout the nation.

Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley also raised security at key city buildings and tourist sites downtown.

The beefed-up safety measures called on the CPD to dispatch canine units to main transportation sites downtown and assign beat cars to perform CTA checks and visual inspections of all el stations, transit officials said.

Station closed

Despite a false bomb threat that temporarily shut down the Kimball Avenue station Sunday morning, Antongiorgi said there is no reason to believe that the city's transportation system is unsafe to ride.

The Brown Line el station was evacuated and service was shut down until 9:55 a.m. No explosives were found on the premises, officials said.

CTA's security budget has seen a 54 percent increase since 2001 -- from $22.5 million to $34.8 million in 2005 -- allowing for upgrades in surveillance and security equipment. The transit authority also spent an additional $22 million for public transit police, increasing the number of officers available to patrol stations.

The CTA also will receive some assistance from the state to help shoulder the cost of heightened security. On July 9, Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich announced the allocation of as much as $1 million from federal homeland-security moneys allocated to the state and disbursed through the Illinois Terrorism Task Force. Mass-transit districts in the eastern St. Louis metropolitan area will share in that subsidy.

Most of the money will supplement the cost of overtime pay for police officers needed for stepped-up security measures, in addition to bomb-sniffing dogs, increased video surveillance, intrusion-detection equipment and inspection of trash receptacles, the governor's office reported.

"There is nothing more important than making sure the people of our state are safe," Blagojevich said in a news release.

More nervous

On Friday, the day after the London attacks, Metra commuters waiting for a train at the Edgebrook stop along Metra's Milwaukee District North Line had a mixed reaction.

Rider Vanessa Vellmahn of Edgebrook said the terrorist attacks in London hadn't really affected her attitude toward getting on a train. "It happened across the ocean. It just seems really distant to me." Vellmahn takes Metra whenever she wants to go downtown. She just started volunteering at the Anti-cruelty Society and will be taking the train a lot more now.

Anne Kelly, of Edgebrook, described herself as an occasional rider. "You cannot help but think about" an attack, she said. "It occurs to you, but you have to live your life, keep going ... and, you know, trust. That's the best you can do."

Patty McCann of Edgebrook shared that sentiment, saying, "I'm riding it, obviously, but I'm more nervous than I would be otherwise. I'm apprehensive, but as she (Kelly) said, 'Life goes on.' You can't live in fear all the time."

CTA officials have placed announcements on buses and trains, encouraging commuters to report any suspicious activity to transit operators or the 911 system. Transit personnel have also begun wearing bright yellow safety vests to make themselves more visible to commuters, Antongiorgi said.

The presence of bomb-sniffing dogs inside train cars and uniformed police officers guarding the gates at high-traffic terminals has some commuters feeling safer, and the increased security measures could continue as long as the city remains on orange alert, said Monique Bond, a spokeswoman for the city's Office of Emergency Management.

"I think the message still remains that the public should remain vigilant," she said. "We're still at orange alert, and there will be heightened security measures in place with a focus on mass transit and the Central Business District until further notice."

911 calls increase

Bond noted that, since the nation's threat level was raised, the city's 911 center has received an average of more than two dozen reports of suspicious packages a day. That's compared with the same period last year, when authorities usually received between one and five reports a day.

Alderman Thomas Allen, 38th Ward, who chairs the Chicago City Council's Transportation and Public Way Committee, said public transit is vital to a thriving city like Chicago and it is essential that the system continue to function as safely, but as normally as possible.

"We can't turn the CTA stations into security checkpoints like the airports," he said. "There's just too much foot traffic along the train and bus stations to have metal detectors at every terminal."

CTA officials said their system includes about 12,000 bus stops, 2,000 buses, 1,200 rail cars and 144 rail stations, and they provide 1.5 million rides on an average weekday.

"Unfortunately, targeting transportation and victimizing innocent people is a part of the terrorists' strategy," Allen said. "But we live in a free society and we can't close off access to our public transportation. We have to fight back by showing them that we will move on with our lives."

Staff writer Alan Schmidt contributed to this report.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

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