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Transit systems may not get upgrades

(The following article by Alan Wirzbicki was posted on the Boston Globe website on October 10. John Tolman serves as the BLET Vice President and National Legislative Representative.)

WASHINGTON -- House and Senate Republican leaders stripped $4.5 billion in funds for mass transit security from homeland security legislation, then forced a quick vote on the streamlined bill last month -- leading angry Democrats to accuse Congress of reneging on a promise to protect the nation's commuters from terrorist attacks.

Some lawmakers complained that they had only a few hours to read the legislation before voting, and said they believe mass transit security should be a top priority, particularly since terrorist bombs killed hundreds of commuters in Madrid, London, and Mumbai, India, during the last 2 1/2 years. Still, President Bush was expected to sign the bill into law.

As a result, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority and other mass transit systems across the country will not get security upgrades such as new surveillance cameras, more canine patrols, and subway tunnel protection systems, as well as millions in overtime pay for transit police. The appropriation also would have paid for emergency response drills, tunnel evacuation system improvements, transit security research grants, and public awareness campaigns.

The last-minute changes also removed a requirement for transit systems to submit their security plans to the Department of Homeland Security for approval.

The bill -- which the House of Representatives passed at 12:30 a.m. on Sept. 30, its last official act before adjourning -- focuses exclusively on securing the nation's ports. The security appropriation would have earmarked $3.4 billion for mass transit security and set aside $1.1 billion for security upgrades for freight and passenger railroads, including Amtrak.

During debate on the bill, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff urged Republican leaders to remove the rail funding, saying he didn't want the bill to become a costly, inefficient ``goulash" of different programs.

``We have to take a balanced, risk-managed approach that puts our resources and our attention in areas of our country and critical infrastructure that represent the greatest risk in terms of threats, vulnerabilities and consequences," Chertoff said in a statement.

But furious Democrats accused Republicans of altering the bill behind closed doors, then ramming it through at the last minute to have a national security issue to use while campaigning for midterm elections.

``After months of bipartisan work in both the House and the Senate, congressional Republicans once again put politics above security," said Ed Markey, a Malden Democrat and member of the House Homeland Security Committee. ``Instead of providing the tools America needs to stay secure, Republicans once again did what they felt they needed to do to win an election."

The bombings in Spain, Britain, and India alone should have been sufficient to convince Republicans in Congress that ``US rails are dangerously vulnerable," said Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Homeland Security Committee.

In the past, the Bush administration has balked at assuming responsibility for mass transit security, and past efforts to increase federal funding for local systems have stalled. In March, Homeland Security official Tracey Henke testified before Congress that the government is legally bound to protect airports, but ``that is not the case for transit security."

After the terrorist attacks overseas, however, lawmakers have promised to provide more money for mass transit security, and they repeated those vows last week even after scuttling the rail funding. Peter King, a New York Republican and chairman of the House Homeland Security committee -- whose Long Island district includes thousands of residents who commute to New York City each day -- said that the House would take up the issue next year.

Democrats have tried to draw attention to the vast funding discrepancy between aviation security, which has received billions since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and the relatively modest amount the government has spent securing the nation's rail systems. Representative Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, the ranking Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, issued a report on the first anniversary of the 2005 London bombings that said US rail systems remained ``wide open and vulnerable" to terrorist attacks.

Lawmakers introduced the port security legislation this spring, amid the furor over a White House-sponsored deal that would have put a company based in the Middle East in charge of running some American port facilities. In the Senate, amendments that included the mass-transit security funding were originally sponsored by two Republicans, Senator John McCain of Arizona and Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama.

Jonathan Graffeo, a spokesman for Shelby, said that the senator was disappointed that his amendment wasn't included in the final draft of the legislation. But Shelby ultimately concluded that ``there were some good things in the bill and [Shelby] decided to support its final passage."

John Tolman, vice president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, the union that represents Amtrak and MBTA commuter rail employees, said Congress badly needs to show more leadership -- and spend more money -- to tighten mass transit security. A survey of 4,000 union members showed few had received training for spotting suspicious activity or responding to a disaster, he said, aside from a pamphlet or video they were expected to watch on their own time.

``This shouldn't be happening," he said. ``There's too many fingers pointed at [rail systems] as the next target," Tolman said. ``Amtrak in particular has cut back their police force to a skeleton crew, and I think that's ridiculous in these modern times."

Jarrett T. Barrios, a Massachusetts senator representing Cambridge and the chairman of the state Legislature's public safety and homeland security committee, said federal allocations for mass transit security is inadequate compared with what the government spends securing airports. Short-changing local transit systems, he said, has ``impacted dramatically the MBTA's ability to bring itself into the 21st century."

``Given that the Department of Homeland Security has identified our subways systems as being at high risk of terrorist attack, it's startling that the Republican leadership in Congress fails continually to support rail and transit security adequately, especially when compared to funding for airports and now ports," he said.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

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