Originally published in the San Francisco Chronicle on August 21, 2005
In the last 10 days, the Department of Homeland Security terminated its orange alert for mass transit, meaning nothing has changed since the first London bombing seven weeks ago. Unfortunately, the Bush administration, with tacit congressional approval, is staying a federal homeland security course that largely ignores mass transit — and history as well.
With five major attacks outside of Iraq in the past 17 months (two in London and Moscow, one in Madrid), transit systems are the current terrorist target of choice. According to Brian Taylor, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UCLA, one-third of all terrorist attacks in the world since 1990 have involved transit systems.
Nevertheless, the Bush administration has downplayed homeland security in general and mass transit security in particular, making a policy out of wishful thinking that by fighting terrorists in Iraq, we will not confront them here. Given how Iraq has exacerbated and not contained the global terrorist threat, why are we ignoring the lessons of London, where terrorists have struck twice without warning?
The first problem is a lack of priority. Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff told the Associated Press last month that, while the Sept. 11 hijackings resulted in almost 3,000 deaths, a “bomb in a subway car may kill 30 people.” Yet a bomb in a major transit hub — Grand Central Station in New York, Union Station in Los Angeles or the proposed Transbay Terminal in San Francisco — could easily harm a larger number than Chertoff admits.
The second is the lack of clearly articulated roles for the federal government and its state, local and private-sector “partners.” We have yet to decide how to best protect our national transportation infrastructure, particularly mass transit and freight rail systems, and who will pay for what. Despite the fact that the federal government helps cities build transit systems, Chertoff does not think it is his job to help defend them. However, there are many areas where cities and states have primary responsibility — highways, health care, education and law enforcement — yet receive significant support from the federal government.
The third problem flows from the first two: a lack of resources. This year, the federal government will spend roughly $4.5 billion for aviation security and only $150 million for transit security. This means too many cities are currently competing for too few resources. For example, five transit systems in the San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose area split $7.1 million in federal transit grants this year, not enough to make a difference against a growing terrorist threat.
But before the Senate went on vacation, despite the London bombings, it actually made things worse. First it declined to raise arbitrary Homeland Security budget caps in order to adopt a proposed $1.16 billion transit- security increase. Then 96 senators actually voted to cut $50 million from transit security grants for 2006. The Senate also lowered the percentage of Homeland Security funding that will go to urban areas where the terrorism risk is highest and where most transit systems operate, rejecting a proposed increase by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. Opponents of higher federal funding for transit security take a fatalistic approach — you can’t protect everything. That is absolutely right, which is why our security priorities must include critical infrastructure both we and terrorists value most.
What should we do differently?
— First, treat the homeland as an equal front in the so-called war on terror and give it more urgent attention. President Bush’s public commitment to “stay on the offensive” belies the reality that, within months, we will begin to disengage from Iraq, bring our troops home and rely more heavily on defense, not offense. This is a war of preparedness and we are not as safe at home as we should be four years after Sept. 11. The president should order his Department of Homeland Security to finish the national transportation infrastructure security strategy required by Congress last year that is already four months overdue.
— Second, perfect transit security is not possible, but better security is. Given al Qaeda’s strategic shift to softer targets, cities and major U.S. transit systems, such as BART, need greater federal assistance to enable greater police presence at stations and expand personnel-security training; deploy more capable closed-circuit television, especially at stops where passenger volume is highest; and integrate greater safety and security features into future designs such as the Transbay Terminal, including explosive and dangerous material detectors specifically designed for transit systems.
— Third, Congress should end the false competition between urban and rural states and direct more money to our economic centers where the terrorism risk and consequences are highest. Three changes are necessary. At least 75 percent of Homeland Security funding should be assigned based on risk, not politics. The number of cities receiving urban-area security grants should be cut by at least a third, enabling the program to have greater impact. And the House of Representatives, when it returns from recess next month, should pass the $1.16 billion transit-security amendment proposed by Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., which the Senate failed to adopt, to correct the current budget imbalance too heavily skewed toward aviation security.
On a daily basis, far more Americans travel on subways, light rail, commuter trains and buses than airplanes. With the risk of terrorism to the United States and our major cities on the rise, the Bush administration must do more to help protect transit passengers, not treat them as collateral damage in a badly managed war.
P.J. Crowley is a senior fellow and director for national defense & homeland security at the Center for American Progress. He is a retired Air Force colonel and served in senior positions at the White House and Department of Defense during the Clinton administration.
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