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PATH commuters to get extra scrutiny

(The following article by Bonnie Friedman was posted on the Jersey Journal website on February 7.)

JERSEY CITY, N.J. -- PATH riders using the Exchange Place station in Jersey City can leave the sandals at home.

The federal Department of Homeland Security will begin screening commuters and baggage today as part of a three-week pilot program designed to protect against terrorist attacks - but commuters won't need to get rid of pocket change or take off their shoes because the machines are not nearly as sensitive as those in airports.

"A police officer with a side arm (revolver) won't set the machine off," said Peter Bengtson, a spokesman for the Rail Security Project, which has been contracted by Homeland Security to run the program. "The analyzers are looking for bomb residue, a suicide bomber or someone carrying a suitcase bomb."

Commuters using the escalators at Exchange Place will have to place large bags on one of two airport-style conveyor belts. Passengers who do not want to be screened can simply take the elevator.

During peak periods, passengers will be randomly selected to pass through metal detectors, while everyone will have to go through during off-peak times.

"I think it's good, for the times we're in," said John Hilz, 54, a New York resident who works as a customer service manager for Met Life in Jersey City and rides the train every day. "They have to check, it's the only way to keep us safe down here. We have to have some measure of protection."

Officials say wait times for those passing through metal detectors are not expected to be more than a minute. The screening program will be up through March 1, and the results will be analyzed before the program moves to other cities, which have not yet been chosen, according to the Rail Security Project.

Roughly 15,000 riders use the Exchange Place station on weekdays. The program is not a response to any specific threat.

"This is just to test the procedure," said Bengtson.

Eleven screeners on loan from the San Francisco International Airport and two law enforcement officers will be at the station eight hours a day, five days a week. Turnstiles have been outfitted so that customers can only enter on one side and exit on the other.

Behind a mammoth police presence yesterday, commuters at the Exchange PATH station took their first look at the $500,000 machinery.

"They shouldn't wait until rush hour, it's going to get congested," said Brenda Haith, 55, a New York resident who works in Jersey City. "They have to be able to keep the line moving. The time you wait spending in line you could get pickpocketed."

Exchange Place commuters are not the only ones keeping an eye on the project.

"It'll be interesting to see how it works," said Neysa Pranger, a campaign coordinator with the Straphangers Campaign, a mass-transit advocacy group in New York City.
"We'll see how long the delays actually are, but it might be something that people will probably get used to."

Tuesday, February 7, 2006

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