Security derailed

July 08, 2005

YESTERDAY'S ATTACK on London's transit system was frighteningly familiar. Just 16 months ago, terrorists in Madrid killed nearly 200 people and wounded more than 1,500 by setting off bombs in commuter trains. Both demonstrated the potential vulnerability of buses and rail systems. Yet, until yesterday, many in Washington seemed unconcerned that something similar could happen in the United States.

Last month, the Senate Appropriations Committee voted to reduce the Department of Homeland Security's budget for transit and rail security from $150 million (the amount spent annually now) to $100 million in the upcoming fiscal year. Certainly, no one knew terrorists would target London, but the 2004 bombings in Spain should have been fresh in senators' minds. What does it take for Congress to grasp this issue?

Since Sept. 11, 2001, the federal government has spent $18 billion on aviation security. Transit systems - which carry 16 times more passengers daily - have received about $250 million. That's a ridiculous imbalance. Transit officials estimate it would take $6 billion to make buses and rail systems safe. And Congress has in the past considered authorizing $3.5 billion over three years for the same purpose.

How would those in charge of the nation's public transit systems spend the extra money? Chiefly for necessities like security cameras, radios, training and extra security personnel. Those aren't extravagant requests. Local governments have spent $2 billion to keep buses and trains safe over the past four years, according to the American Public Transit Association.

The Bush administration originally asked for significantly more than $150 million to create a Targeted Infrastructure Protection Program that would not only increase transit security but also assist vulnerable shipping ports and energy facilities, too. And though transit and rail systems might have been shortchanged by that arrangement, it is not unreasonable to let DHS officials set their own investment priorities - if an adequate budget is made available to them.

Transit advocates are hopeful that the $50 million cut can be restored. The attacks in London suggest much more is needed. Advocates want $2 billion for transit and rail security in the fiscal 2006 budget (not counting the amount needed to protect Amtrak). Suddenly, that doesn't seem quite so unreasonable an expenditure.

Still, the failure to address transit security in the wake of last year's bombings in Madrid underscores Capitol Hill's inability to set appropriate spending priorities in matters of domestic security. As the 9/11 commission pointed out, Congress has treated portions of the DHS budget like so much bacon, apportioning more per capita to Wyoming than to New York. Between the costly war in Iraq and record budget deficits, the nation can ill afford to be so foolish with its security resources.

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