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More travelers face searches on way to NYC

(The following article by Sewell Chan was posted on the New York Times website on July 26.)

NEW YORK -- Hundreds of suburban commuters, from central New Jersey to Rockland County, N.Y., were asked for the first time yesterday to submit their bags for inspection by the police, as two major transit carriers in the region joined New York City authorities trying to buffer their train, subway and bus systems against a terror attack.

New Jersey Transit's police officers conducted more than 1,100 searches at commuter rail stations in Trenton and Secaucus and a light-rail station in Hoboken, among other transit hubs. Around 5:30 p.m., a 21-year-old man was arrested and charged with possession of illegal fireworks, a misdemeanor, as he tried to board a light-rail train in Hoboken, the transit agency said. He was given a court date and released.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey searched bags at several Manhattan stations on the PATH commuter railroad, including the 33rd Street and World Trade Center site stations, and at the Port Authority Bus Terminal, which is the busiest in the United States, and is used for long-distance travel as well as for daily commuting.

The expansion of searches occurred against a backdrop of anxiety in New York City, where the police continued to conduct widespread bag inspections in the subways under a policy authorized by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg last week. Searches on the Long Island Rail Road and the Metro-North Railroad began on Friday.

In Downtown Brooklyn, the police cordoned off a busy intersection after discovering a briefcase chained to a fire hydrant near Montague and Court Streets. After evacuating several office buildings and shops in the neighborhood, a police bomb squad detonated the briefcase with a small explosive device. Nothing harmful was found.

The police also told members of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's board yesterday that major crime in the city's subways was down 22.6 percent so far this month compared with the same period a year earlier. They attributed the decline to the doubling of police patrols in the subways since the London transit system was attacked in four bombings on July 7.

Other new police statistics seem to reflect the increase in public vigilance - and jitters. Between July 7 and yesterday, according to police officials, 911 operators recorded 1,476 reports of suspicious packages and 149 bomb scares in New York City, compared with 804 and 130 in the same period last year.

The police have not disclosed the number of subway stations where search checkpoints were set up, but they said yesterday that the number had not changed from Friday, the first full day of the searches.

"If you were walking your usual route and had seen them once or twice Friday and are back on your usual route today, you may not see them, because they're at different stations," said Paul J. Browne, a police spokesman.

In May, the New York City subways had an average ridership of 4.9 million each weekday. The suburban rail lines carry far fewer riders. New Jersey Transit's 11 commuter rail lines provide 231,000 rides each weekday, and its three light-rail lines provide 45,000 rides. The PATH rail system delivers 200,000 rides each weekday.

The expansion of searches to more areas of suburban New York raises the prospect that some commuters would be searched more than once as part of their daily routine. But most riders greeted the new procedure with equanimity, if not relish.

In Hoboken, Valerie Roedel, a 30-year-old accountant, had her bag searched as she began her trip home to Bayonne on the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail system. "It wouldn't be my target of choice, but it's as vulnerable as any other transit system," she said. "Every little bit helps. Searches are just a new part of the commute."

Other riders were uneasy about the new searches. "When I saw the cops here, I wondered if I should get on the train at all," said Vamsi Sistla, 32, a research analyst from Jersey City who had his backpack searched in the PATH station at 33rd Street and the Avenue of the Americas. "Seeing the cops creates fear that there could be something going on."

At the bus terminal in Midtown, Loretta Smith, 26, a retail worker who lives in Rockland County, had her bag searched as she went about her afternoon commute. "When you think about all these buses going under the Lincoln Tunnel, it's a good target," she said.

Scott Pasqual, a 58-year-old handyman, said he was worried that some riders would be targeted unfairly. "This is a violation of the privacy of every citizen," he said as he waited for his ride home to Haverstraw, in Rockland County. "If you are from the Middle East, Spanish or black, you're always a suspect," said Mr. Pasqual, who is of West Indian ancestry.

Critics have questioned the legal basis for the searches. The American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut said yesterday that it had begun looking into searches on the New Haven line of Metro-North. Its affiliates in New York and New Jersey are also conducting such reviews. A new Web site, www.nosubwaysearches.org, urges riders to write to oppose the policy.

There were signs last night that the searches were only one of many tasks that face the police. At the bus terminal, which has been associated with urban grit since it opened in 1950, three Port Authority police officers assigned to check bags instead found themselves occupied with ejecting an intoxicated man.

Nearby, a sign alerted bus riders to the new search policy. "Passengers who do not agree to such inspections shall not proceed beyond this point and are advised to make alternate travel arrangements," it stated.

Reporting for this article was contributed by John Holl, Johanna Jainchill, William K. Rashbaum, Matthew Sweeney and Robert F. Worth.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

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