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More security for mass transit
McClatchy Newspapers


July 11, 2005

WASHINGTON - The deadly bomb attacks in London last week opened a new front in the debate on terror.

Airline passengers have learned to take off their shoes and wait in long lines to be screened and frisked, but mass transit riders - the target of the London attacks - have seen little extra security since 9/11.

That could change as Congress returns from its weeklong July 4 recess, with pressure building to shift funding toward public transit systems like the New York subway, which would be much harder to secure.

Almost as soon as Americans woke up to the carnage in London, there were calls from Democrats and Republicans alike to step up mass transit security.

When the Senate takes up the Homeland Security spending bill this week, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said he will propose doubling funding for rail, bus and subway security. He said that after the March 11, 2004, train bombings in Madrid, "London is our second wake-up call."

But there is little agreement about what to do, and at what cost.

"The challenge is, what are we going to spend it on?" said Rep. Mark Kennedy, R-Minn, a member of the Transportation Committee. "Do we want to screen passengers coming aboard subways? Do you want police on every bus?"

Since 9/11, Washington has spent $18 billion on airline security, compared to $250 million to safeguard public transportation, according to the American Public Transportation Association.

President Bush's fiscal 2006 Transportation Security Administration budget called for $4.7 billion in new spending for aviation security. For mass transit: $32 million.

The House upped mass transit and rail security spending to $150 million.

"The events in London demonstrate that much more investment clearly is needed," the transit group's president, William Millar, wrote to Senate leaders within hours of the attacks.

Republican calls for beefed-up security have been mixed with warnings that the solution is not to be found on train platforms and subway turnstiles. Some hope that the London attacks could provide support for better border security, the war in Iraq, and extending expiring provisions of the Patriot Act, the 2001 anti-terrorism law that gives the government greater investigative powers.

"While we cannot turn out transit systems into hardened targets, the aggressive measures underway are aimed at meeting both our security needs and the demands of a free society," said Rep. Christopher Cox, R-Calif., chairman of the Homeland Security Committee.

Cox has endorsed stepped-up deployments of remote surveillance technologies in mass transit systems. The Homeland Security Department has also experimented with biological and chemical-detection units in Washington and several other cities.

Beyond that, little has been tried to improve mass transit security besides removing subway trash cans that can hide bombs, more frequent police canine patrols, and warning passengers to be on the lookout for suspicious packages.

Many experts say it would be hard to do more without undermining the very mission of mass transit systems: moving large numbers of people around fast.

"Certain characteristics make them both vulnerable and difficult to secure," U.S. officials wrote in a Government Accountability Office report to Congress. "The high ridership of some transit agencies makes them attractive targets for terrorists but also makes certain security measures, like metal detectors, impractical."

Unlike the airline system, which is highly regulated by the federal government, the nation has 6,000 separate agencies providing mass transit to about 14 million people a day who board at multiple locations.

Appearing before Congress last year, Allan Rutter, then-administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration, asked members to imagine the security required at Chicago O'Hare Airport, which has about 5.9 million passengers a month.

"Now imagine the system you'd need to handle the same volume of passenger activity at 228 separate stations on Chicago's commuter railroad, Metro, which handles about 1.56 million passengers a week, system-wide," he said. "Even if someone could afford such a system, its daily effects on passengers would cripple Metro's effectiveness. ... My point is this: Security is an important function of the federal government, but it is not our only purpose."


Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.

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