Neal Peirce / Syndicated columnist
Protect public transportation
Should the federal government be investing substantially more effort and dollars to protect the nation's trains and subway systems, buses...
Should the federal government be investing substantially more effort and dollars to protect the nation's trains and subway systems, buses and ferries?
The London attacks on three crowded subway trains and a double-decker bus, on the heels of last year's terrorist hit at Madrid's commuter-rail system, ought to offer proof.
Thirty-two million times a day, argues William Millar, president of the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), Americans board trains, buses and passenger ferry boats. That's 16 times the number (just under 2 million) who board airplanes daily. Yet since 9/11, Washington has allocated a scant $250 million for transit security, compared with the $18.1 billion it has granted the airline industry.
There has been some shift in Washington since the London incident. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, in a major reorganization of his department, did make a first-ever Bush administration call to place detection systems for conventional, radioactive, biological or chemical weapons on public-transit systems
Previously, Chertoff had reacted to the London bombings by saying, "I wouldn't make a policy decision driven by a single event" and "I think our transit systems are safe."
As for Congress, before the London bombings the Republican-controlled Senate had been set to reduce the allocation for public-transit-safety efforts from $150 million to $100 million in the $31.8 billion appropriations bill for homeland-security operations. After London, suggestions emerged to increase the total — though still by just a fraction of what the airline industry receives.
Since 9/11, public-transit agencies — out of their own tight budgets, and because of apparent holes in our national-security defenses — have been obliged to spend $2 billion on new safety measures, including police visibility, undercover security, canine patrols and security sweeps on vehicles and stations.
While the federal government was spending $9.16 per passenger on airliner security in 2002-2003, its outlays for transit-security grants came to six-tenths of a penny per passenger. The federal government has never responded to a 2004 APTA survey in which transit agencies reported they needed $6 billion over three years for security equipment, technology and personnel overtime costs.
Some federal officials have said that spending on intelligence work to prevent nuclear or biological attacks should rank well ahead of transit protections. Millar's response:
"We know intelligence is critical — to keep track of the bad guys and their plans. We have no problem focusing on the highest threat activities. But if you wanted to introduce a weapon like a radiation bomb, a major transit station in the midst of rush hour would be an ideal location."
Admittedly, says Millar, public transit, with its thousands of entry points and vulnerabilities, may be tougher to protect than airplanes. "But we shouldn't throw up our hands and throw 32 million passengers to the wolves," he says. Security and transit agencies around the world, he notes, have developed smart approaches — first, identify transit systems' greatest vulnerabilities; second, train employees (and encourage all riders) to detect and report suspicious activities; third, collaborate in practice drills with local police (as London has done).
Next steps, says Millar: Install the most advanced available detection technology (relying on the federal government to fund research in improved methods). Use sensors to check unauthorized entry into tunnels. Make sure transit agency and police and fire and emergency responders can communicate on the same radio frequency. Put good fences around transit yards to keep out intruders. Use closed-circuit TV to great advantage (as London has, fending off more than 20 previous unsuccessful terror attempts).
No system, says Millar, can be made "100 percent safe and secure." But the common-sense steps "can make an already safe system safer."
And ironically, it's on a safety argument that transit advocates hope to keep passengers coming.
And why? Because, argues Todd Litman of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, riding buses and trains is so much safer than driving private cars, even counting recent terrorist attacks. "Take a trip by auto you could take by a city bus and you're 170 times more likely to die in the car than in the bus," says Millar.
Each London-like event triggers some reporters to ask riders: "How can you continue using transit after what happened?" It's precisely the question — and aura of fear — the terrorists want to perpetrate.
But smart people, and a smart society, shouldn't be fooled.
Neal Peirce's column appears alternate Mondays on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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