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Opinion: Unspent funds for train safety, security make N.J. lawmakers furious

(The following story by Bob Braun appeared on the Star-Ledger website on March 16, 2009.)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — In 2006, Congress appropriated $127.8 million to keep trains -- including NJ Transit, Amtrak and the New York City subways -- safe.

Not so much in this country, but in other places -- Madrid, London, Mumbai -- bad guys blow up trains because that's where people are. Some say it's only a matter of time before somebody tries to blow up an American train.

The Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the spending, is consistent. In 2007, $262.9 million was appropriated by Congress -- that means it was raised through taxes -- for grants for security.

Of that, according to documents released by the House Appropriations Committee, only $9.8 million was spent. Less than 4 percent.

Last year, Congress raised $359.5 million, homeland security spent $5 million -- 1.4 percent.

The congressman who spoke about rot and mold -- Hal Rogers from Kentucky, the ranking Republican--charged that, since 9/11, $1.3 billion of $1.5 billion raised for mass transit security grant programs has been "languishing in the coffer."

"The taxpayers are getting screwed," he said.

New Jersey Rep. Steven Rothman (D-9th Dist.) demanded the dismissals of top people in the Transportation Security Administration and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, both offices of the federal Department of Homeland Security.

"Heads should roll," he said.

Two federal administrators who appeared before the subcommittee walked into an ambush--although it was of their own making. John Sammon, assistant director of the TSA, and W. Ross Ashley, a grants administrator with FEMA, came with prepared statements saying just how great everything was going with security on trains.

Sammon said the grants "enhance our ability to focus on making high-risk transit systems less attractive as targets and more secure for the traveling public." Then Jack Eckles, safety director for the Los Angeles transit agency, spoke--and he said everything wasn't great. He said federal procedures were "confusing" and "cumbersome." He talked about finally receiving money for a 2006 project in late 2008.

Naturally, this prompted lawmakers to ask how much had actually been spent. Sammon and Ashley made the serious bureaucratic mistake of saying they didn't know.

"Why don't you know?" Rothman wanted to know. Ashley said something about leaving the figures in his office, which sounded to the members of Congress like, "The dog ate my homework."

"Holy cow!" said Rogers.

"That's outrageous," said Rothman.

What Ashley should have known was that committee staff members did their homework and no dog ate it. Within seconds, every lawmaker had a document showing the government raised tons of money to make trains safer but never actually spent much.

Sammon tried to say the government's efforts at "transparency" slowed things because his office had to keep working with local transit agencies to make them explain how they would spend the money.

"We asked an agency how it was going to spend a grant," said Sammon, "and it sent back three words --'construction' and materials.' That's it. We had to know more."

When this money first became available, it was distributed largely on a political basis. Wyoming got proportionately more than, say, New Jersey. After a lot of criticism, the feds tried to devise a competitive grant system.

The result was: Lots of money. Unspent.

It's crazy," says New Jersey Rep. Albio Sires (D-13th), whose Hudson County district is home to many train tracks. "You try to get the politics out of homeland security money--and this is what you get. No money spent at all."

In the end, Sammon and Ashley were sent to their offices, jobs intact, and told to write a report about why they were so slow and a plan for spending moldy money.

They were given a month to do their homework.

Monday, March 16, 2009

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