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House approves rail security legislation

(The Associated Press circulated the following article by Jim Abrams on March 27.)

WASHINGTON -- The House took steps Tuesday to make the nation’s rail and public transit systems safer from terrorist attack, focusing on an area that many say has been ignored in the rush to improve air security after the Sept. 11 attacks.

The legislation, approving $7.3 billion over four years to assess risks, train personnel and secure tunnels for roads and railways, passed 299-124. The Senate earlier this month attached a similar $4 billion measure to broader legislation aimed at carrying out the recommendations of the Sept. 11 Commission.

The White House, continuing a pattern of opposing legislation proposed in the Democratic-controlled Congress, issued a veto threat on the House bill, objecting specifically to whistle-blower language it said would allow employees with grievances to reveal security-sensitive information.

“The time for wondering and waiting has come and gone. Today we act,” said House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss, citing terrorist attacks over the past three years on railroads and subways in Madrid, London and Mumbai. The bill “makes clear that America will simply not wait for terrorists to attack our trains, buses and subways.”

“This is legislation whose time has come,” agreed Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., top Republican on the panel. “It addresses very, very key areas of vulnerability.”

The House bill would require rail and public transit systems to submit vulnerability assessments and security plans to the Homeland Security Department, which would assign each carrier to a risk-based tier.

It approves grants of $2.5 billion over four years for rail security and $3.6 billion for public transportation, with the grants to be given out based on priorities established by the department.

It contains provisions to reroute highly hazardous materials around densely populated areas, an idea rejected in the Senate bill, and authorizes $140 million in grants over four years to Amtrak to improve tunnels in the Northeast corridor.

Under the legislation, rail and public transportation systems would be directed to train employees on how to prevent, prepare for and respond to a terrorist attack. The Homeland Security Department would increase its 100-person staff of rail security inspectors to 600 by 2010.

The department is also told to issue an information-sharing plan to strengthen intelligence updates provided to federal, state and local agencies and other stakeholders.

In 2006 the federal government spent $4.7 billion for airline security but only $136 million for rail and transit, said Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Fla.

District of Columbia Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat, said that “by shoring up one mode of transportation we may be offering a virtual invitation to terrorists to go to the next most vulnerable target. That turns out to be rail and mass transit.”

At the end of the debate Republicans succeeded in attaching language giving legal immunity to people on planes and other public transport who report potential terrorist activity. The proposal grew out of an incident last November where six Islamic leaders were removed from a U.S. Airways flight for what other passengers said was suspicious behavior. The Islamic leaders have since filed suit against the passengers who reported them.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

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