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Securing public transit

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This week marks the first anniversary of last year's terrorist bombings in London. Nearly five years after September 11, America's fitful progress on homeland security remains evident in how we treat aviation security relative to the security of big-city mass-transit systems. The federal government spends about $4.5 billion annually on aviation security and has spent roughly $20 billion in total since September 11. At the same time, the Homeland Security and Transportation departments, together since September 11 have spent less than $500 million to protect vulnerable subways, trains and buses.

Does a roughly 40-fold federal spending disparity make sense? Sen. Judd Gregg has argued that "there isn't enough money in the federal treasury to [secure] the entire transit system in America." James Carafano, a homeland security expert at the Heritage Foundation, has argued that increasing our effort to secure public transportation would be a distraction from our focus on going after the terrorists. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has argued that mass-transit security is largely a local responsibility: "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 [the federal government] start to think about [its] priorities, you're going to think about making sure you don't have a catastrophic event first."

An analysis of over 20,000 terrorist incidents worldwide since 1968 shows that, on average, attacks on ground-based transportation systems, including mass transit, create far more casualties than any other type of terrorist attack. From an odds perspective, attacks on subways or buses are far easier to carry out and therefore much more likely to occur than another September 11-style attack. Together, London and Madrid killed 250 people and injured over 2,000. While the Tokyo sarin attack in 1995 killed only 12 people, it injured 6,000. A similar nonconventional attack on transit, done more effectively, could be devastating.

Recent reports about a terrorist plot to attack the New York subway system with cyanide suggest that we can not rely on terrorist forbearance when it comes to protecting U.S. subways. 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 TSA aviation-security budget has already begun to show these savings. Capital- and equipment-related investments fell by nearly 60 percent from 2002 to 2005. Over the same period, capital and equipment fell as a portion of the budget, from roughly 30 percent to between 10 percent and 15 percent in 2005. Allowing capital spending on aviation security to decline naturally over the next three to five years would free up enough money to address many, if not all, of the most pressing mass-transit security needs.

It is likely that jihadist terrorists will target public transportation in the United States before they useanother airplane as a missile. Improving aviation security since September 11 has been the right thing to do. But failing to question the dramatically unbalanced attention given to aviation at the expense ofother high-risk targets reflects the worst tendencies in American politics, driven by inertia and too focused on fighting the last battle.

Reacting intelligently to London, Madridand decades of deadly terrorist attacks against public transportation does not mean that we are doomed to spend ourselves into oblivion. Nor does it mean that we aretaking our eye off the ball in the war on terror. Just the opposite is true. By doing more to secure public transportation, we will be looking terrorism -- both its history and current tactics -- squarely in the eye.

Daniel B. Prieto is senior fellow and director of the Reform Institutes Homeland Security Center. He is a member of the Century Foundation Homeland Security Task Force.

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