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Opinion: U.S. mass transit security -- Token spending won't do

(The Philadelphia Inquirer posted the following editorial on its website on July 16.)

PHILADELPHIA -- President Bush, who again vowed to defeat terrorism in the aftermath of the deadly London bombings of a bus and three commuter trains, needs to direct his focus to the same potential target in the United States - mass transit.

Pathetic is the only appropriate description of this nation's post-9/11 effort to protect American travelers, who take 32 million trips every workday on regional mass transit systems. That doesn't include Amtrak.

There is no way to guarantee completely safe buses and trains. But the regional transit systems and Amtrak could do better with improved radio systems, more security cameras on vehicles and in stations, automated locator systems, and intense security training and drills for rail workers.

The Transportation Security Administration, which took over the security of airline travel after 9/11, ought to be calling an emergency meeting to discuss how best to strengthen security for mass transit.

The Bush administration should be urging Republican congressional leaders to reconsider the nation's paltry investment in protecting mass transit passengers, particularly in such obvious terrorist target zones as New York, Washington and other major urban transit centers.

Transit security should have become a top priority after the terrorist train bombings in Madrid that killed 191 people in March 2004. It shouldn't have taken the deaths of at least 54 people in the London attacks to get our political leaders' attention. Have they also forgotten 1995's deadly gas attacks on the Tokyo subways that caused nearly 6,000 casualties and killed 12?

These lessons have apparently been lost on the Department of Homeland Security. It didn't even spend much of the $10 million it received this year to inspect and patrol rail lines. And the Senate this week voted down a $1.16 billion plan for mass transit security and instead passed an inadequate $100 million proposal.

A 2004 survey by the American Public Transportation Association showed it would take $6 billion in safety measures to reasonably protect transit riders. Since Sept. 11, 2001, Congress has committed $18 billion to airline security and other related costs. Congress last year provided a paltry $150 million for rail security.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff this week said it makes sense to spend more on air security because a plane loaded with jet fuel could kill 3,000 while a bomb in a subway car may kill only 30.

Americans understand spending priorities must be set, but surely Congress can look more deeply into its pork barrel to find funds to improve mass transit security.

This country needs a more coherent transportation policy that not only preserves Amtrak, which the administration appears determined to bankrupt, but also gives mass transit a higher priority in receiving the federal dollars needed to ensure American commuters' safety.

Monday, July 18, 2005

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