Senate Rethinks Proposed Cuts In Mass-Transit Security Funds

By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 12, 2005

The Senate is having second thoughts about cutting mass-transit security funding after last week's London bombings.

As lawmakers began debate yesterday on $31 billion in 2006 funding for the Department of Homeland Security, the terrorist attacks Thursday on three crowded subway trains and a double-decker bus provided a stark backdrop to complaints from urban lawmakers that mass transit gets short shrift in funding compared with air travel.

Last month, the Senate Appropriations Committee cut mass-transit security funding for the coming year by $50 million from this year's $150 million level. The spending bill's Republican authors said they won't object to adding more to secure rail and bus systems, but they cautioned that even with the extra money it could be a while before the effects are seen. That's because the government has been slow in releasing grants authorized for the current fiscal year -- while billions in other security funds remain untapped.

"It is clear that we're not doing close to enough and must do more," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer. The New York Democrat is seeking to boost rail and mass-transit security spending to $200 million. Other senators want steeper increases.

"The soft underbelly of buses and subways and railroads are fully exposed to similar terrorist attacks unless we take real steps to beef up mass-transit security immediately," Schumer warned.

"We know mass transit is an issue," responded Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee's homeland security subcommittee. "We could probably do another $100 million into mass transit and not affect this bill substantively."

The Senate bill also includes nearly $7.9 billion in 2006 funding for the U.S. Coast Guard and about $6 billion for U.S. Customs and Border Protection -- $423 million more than President Bush requested.

The increase in immigration-related funding reflects a growing frustration in Congress with what lawmakers consider one of the most obvious domestic security threats -- unprotected U.S. borders. The bill would provide money to hire 1,000 Border Patrol agents and 600 immigration enforcement agents. It also would pay for 4,000 new detention beds.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said the agency is reviewing its transit security policies and will soon release proposals to enhance preparedness. "I think our transit systems are safe," he said in a briefing after the bombings. As for increasing mass-transit funding, he cautioned Congress, "I wouldn't make a policy decision driven by a single event."

Department spokesman Marc Short said the 2005 transportation security grant program, totaling $150 million, was modified substantially, leading to the delay in distribution. He said all the money is scheduled to be disbursed in the coming week. As part of the restructuring, the agency launched a risk-based assessment process for mass-transit systems, based on ridership, number of stations and the most recent intelligence information. The leading recipients for 2005 are New York City, which was awarded $37 million, and the D.C. area, which was awarded more than $12 million.

The grant restructuring points to a broader conflict between Congress and the White House over mass-transit security: whether it should be addressed through individual programs or lumped into one large pool. Transit organizations want lawmakers to keep intact the current program of multiple grants. But in his 2006 budget, Bush proposed a $600 million "targeted infrastructure" pool for ports, rail and bus systems and buffer-zone protections for nuclear and chemical plants. The approach, said Short, "would allow the secretary to allocate funds based on current risk."

William Millar, president of the American Public Transportation Association, testified before Gregg's committee in April that in response to a survey by his organization, transit agencies around the country have identified more than $6 billion in transit security needs. "State and local governments and transit agencies are doing what they can to improve security, but it is important that the federal government be a full partner in the effort," Millar said.

But no matter how dire the mass-transit security needs, "there's been so much money put into this so quickly it hasn't been spent," Gregg said. Short said that about half of the $8.6 billion that Congress provided in homeland security grants has gone unspent.

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