House spending bill imperils millions for Metro, MARC security

Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 3, 2011; 7:26 PM

The House-passed spending bill awaiting action by the Senate could cut several million dollars from the security budgets of local transit agencies, the latest sign that the austerity measure would have a significant impact on the Washington region if it becomes law.

The seven-month continuing resolution passed by the House last month would cut $150 million from Metro's budget for capital projects in 2011, a reduction that senators from Maryland and Virginia have vowed to oppose when their chamber writes its version of the bill in coming weeks.

But the House measure would also slice funding from a separate grant program for transit security projects around the country, and transportation systems in the Washington region could take a significant hit. Money that has been used to prevent unauthorized people from driving Metrobuses and to install cameras in MARC train stations might no longer be available unless the Senate rewrites the House legislation.

The House bill calls for a cut of $783 million in the Federal Emergency Management Agency's aid to state and local governments. That, in turn, would lead to sharp reductions in FEMA's Transit Security Grant Program.

According to a chart prepared by FEMA for members of Congress - a hypothetical analysis that reduces funding for every transit agency by 70 percent - Metro could lose $13 million of the $18.6 million it received under the security program last year. The Maryland Transit Administration could lose $7.5 million of the $10.7 million it had last year, and Alexandria would see $140,000 cut from its previous grant of $200,000.

Those numbers represent only one possible scenario. FEMA could end up cutting grants to different transit agencies by different amounts.

Rep. Robert B. Aderholt (R-Ala.), who chairs the subcommittee that handles FEMA funding, said when the House bill was unveiled that the spending cuts "will not be easy, but they are long overdue and necessary to address what has become a national emergency: our out-of-control federal spending."

But the possibility of losing millions has the agencies on guard.

"Any decrease in security funding is a concern because it would reduce the resources available to our system," said Metro spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein. "Transit security is critical to our system and the safety of our customers, employees and infrastructure."

In September, Metro announced that it would use its $18.6 million transit security grant from 2010 to install a "bus driver authentication system" to prevent unauthorized people from driving Metrobuses. That decision came two months after a teenager wearing a Metro uniform stole a bus from the agency's Bladensburg garage, picked up passengers and then crashed into a tree.

The grant was also used to pay for new cameras, fencing and lighting to improve security at Metro yards.

Metro has an annual operating budget of $1.4 billion and receives separate federal funding from other programs and agencies. (The Transit Security Grant funds are not included in the operating budget.) Farbstein said reduced funding from the FEMA grant program would not affect Metro's bag-check system.

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