The 1st anniversary of the London transit and bus bombings prompted DHS to issue a press release today citing their accomplishments in the areas of rail and transit security. This afternoon Sec. Chertoff is holding a press conference in Boston to discuss the topic. All of this follows the announcement yesterday of the FY 2006 transit security grants. That makes this week a rare moment of attention for transit security, a topic which has often seemed like a backburner issue at the Department of Homeland Security, especially given Sec. Chertoff’s ill-advised remark on transit security last year:
In an interview with the AP, Chertoff said: ”The truth of the matter is, a fully loaded airplane with jet fuel, a commercial airliner, has the capacity to kill 3,000 people. A bomb in a subway car may kill 30 people. When you start to think about your priorities, you’re going to think about making sure you don’t have a catastrophic thing first.”
Asked whether this meant that communities should be ready to provide the bulk of the protection for local transit systems, Chertoff said, ”Yep.”
I’ve defended this statement by Sec. Chertoff before, arguing that from a risk assessment perspective, he was factually correct. The revelations in The One-Perfect Doctrine on the “mubtakkar” and the plotted cyanide gas attack on the NY subway make me now think that he had underestimated the potential consequences of a subway attack, but I still agree with his main point: that the rail and transit sector doesn’t require the same level of security as aviation. But the status quo level of funding is inadequate, as Dan Prieto convincingly argues today in the Washington Times:
We need to rethink the enormous federal spending bias in favor of aviation security. State and local transit authorities are doing the best they can to improve the security of public transportation, spending $1.7 billion of their own limited resources from September 11, 2001, through 2003. But the vast majority of that spending went to cover temporary security measures, such as the cost of employee overtime during periods of alert. That has left insufficient resources for needed permanent improvements in security.
Without greater federal assistance, the country will fail to make the investments that the most vulnerable transit systems in our largest cities need now: interoperable communications, security cameras, technologies to detect bombs and chemical, biological and nuclear agents and investments in better ventilation, fire safety, lighting and tunnel and stairwell access, which can dramatically improve the chances of surviving an attack.
Improving public transportation security need not mean unlimited spending. Directed federal assistance over several years would result in $3 billion to $5 billion in meaningful improvements. Better yet, the value of such investments will be magnified since security upgrades can also benefit overall safety and day-to-day transit operations. Surely $3 billion to protect subway riders against terrorists can’t be too much to ask when last year’s transportation bill contained up to $3 billion for bicycle and walking trails.
Surprisingly, much of the money for public transportation security can be had without busting the budget. Aviation security spending by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) should decline naturally over the near- to medium-term, because a large portion of spending since September 11 reflects the one-time costs of hardened cockpit doors and airport screening devices — spending that does not need to be repeated year after year.
The need for investment that would improve the ability of passengers to evacuate from subway systems is particularly acute. Last week passengers on the DC Metro experienced hour-long delays due to flooding at several stations. Trains were stacked up and idled in long, dark, narrow tunnels for long periods of time. What if there were a bombing or a chemical attack? What’s being done to ensure orderly evacuation that minimizes loss of life? Not enough, I’m afraid.