Safe harbor?

April 04, 2003

USING THE shipping wharves of Philadelphia as his backdrop, President Bush announced wartime security measures this week meant to instill confidence that the nation's seaports are protected. But Ernest F. Hollings, the acerbic senator from South Carolina, tuned in and observed: "The nearest thing we have to port security in the Port of Philadelphia was [the president's] Coast Guard jacket."

The veteran Democrat may have indulged in a bit of dramatic license, but his concern about the vulnerability of America's vast waterfront is widely shared. Not only are the country's docks and piers considered relatively easy targets for terrorists, attacks there could wreak economic havoc that would compound the damage exponentially if the flow of commerce were shut off.

Yet the cause of port security is not sexy enough to attract the support it requires in Washington, nor compelling enough to radically change the culture of a competitive industry that wants to load and unload quickly and be on its way.

Despite Mr. Bush's photo op, he's asked for no additional spending on port security grants since Sept. 11, 2001. And Congress has imposed on him only about $350 million.

Baltimore, with more than 100 public and private port facilities and 45 miles of waterfront, has received $3.6 million so far, plus use of a $2 million mobile device that can scan cargo containers for explosives.

But the Coast Guard estimates it would cost at least $1 billion a year to develop and implement the port-by-port comprehensive security plans required by legislation passed last year with no money attached.

Mr. Hollings tried to add that $1 billion to the emergency war spending bill now before Congress, but his proposal was defeated 52-47 by the Republican leadership, which told him to come back another time.

The senator already had spent much of last year trying to get port security measures financed through a user fee on shippers, cargo and cruise passengers. But the maritime industry protested, saying it already pays more than its fair share of taxes.

"I wish I had a ship," Mr. Hollings said wistfully during a lonely moment on the Senate floor. "I would run it up some river and blow it up and wake this crowd up."

Are there no other ways of getting Washington's attention?

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