Antiterrorist funds for railroads suggested

Money for urban security could be used, Hutchinson says

senators skeptical

March 24, 2004|By Elaine S. Povich | Elaine S. Povich,NEWSDAY

WASHINGTON - Under stiff questioning from senators, Homeland Security Undersecretary Asa Hutchinson suggested yesterday that funds from a $1.4 billion federal pot designated for antiterrorist efforts in high-threat urban areas like New York could be used to secure the nation's rails.

Members of the House and Senate from New York were not impressed.

"They use that for everything," sighed Sen. Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat. "Whenever you say, `Where are you going to get the money?' they say use it for everything."

During a hearing of the Senate Commerce Committee, called to discuss rail security in the wake of the Madrid, Spain, rail bombings that killed more than 200 people and injured more than 1,400 two weeks ago, Hutchinson called for using money from the antiterrorist efforts fund.

"The president's budget doubles the money for urban security grants which is where all our mass transit systems are," Hutchinson said after the hearing. "So that is a piece of funding that would be available for these type of programs. It's up to the major cities to allocate where their greatest security needs are. We'll probably be earmarking some for mass transit."

Rep. Peter T. King, a New York Republican, who has sponsored a bill to upgrade security and safety in the Penn Station Amtrak tunnels, said the government shouldn't turn to high-threat money for railroad protection.

"I define the `high threat' as more of a day-to-day responsibility: cops, firefighters," King said. "Here, we're talking about long-term structural changes. We should make this a separate appropriation."

Sen. John B. Breaux, a Louisiana Democrat and a member of the Commerce Committee, called the suggestion "robbing Peter to pay Paul. We've just got to look for more money."

Hutchinson said the Homeland Security department plans to use existing resources to add more canine patrols in rail stations, including a "rapid response" team that would go to rail facilities where intelligence suggests there is a heightened threat.

Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain, an Arizona Republican, pledged to get a $515 million rail security bill through his committee before the Senate's spring recess in April and chided the Bush administration officials for dragging their feet on a study of rail security that is supposed to determine where the weaknesses are in the system.

McCain also looked favorably on a proposal by a group of senators led by Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Thomas R. Carper, Delaware Democrats, and Schumer, which mirrors King's bill.

The Senate bill would provide more than $700 million to upgrade ventilation, fire and electrical safety technology and emergency systems in Amtrak tunnels, including the six New York Penn Station tunnels built in 1910.

Though the entire U.S. rail system can't be protected from terrorism, the government can start by securing the Amtrak tunnels under the U.S. Supreme Court and Penn Station because of their vulnerability to a catastrophic attack, Biden told the Senate Commerce Committee.

"Can we stop an explosion of incredible consequences under the Supreme Court of the United States?" said Biden.

In 2001, a 130-year-old tunnel under downtown Baltimore was the scene of a railcar fire that took five days to extinguish and crippled Internet systems and rail travel along the Eastern Seaboard.

Hundreds of thousands of people travel through the six New York Penn Station tunnels every day, said Biden.

Amtrak tunnels built in 1904 run under the Supreme Court and House and Senate office buildings.

In an American Public Transportation Association survey, transit agencies said they need more than $6 billion for security.

Newsday is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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