- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 18, 2007

The squeaky wheel doesn’t always get the grease in Washington, but often enough it gets the pork. That’s what’s happening in the District two years after the D.C. Council cried foul over vulnerable hazardous chemicals on city rails. The chemical-bearing trains are still rolling — they must, as we’ve long argued — but you no longer hear D.C. politicians braying about toxic hazards. One reason is the possibility of many millions more in homeland-security dollars. The $5.2 billion measure currently under House consideration has few restrictions and stands to award the District a handsome portion.

Last week, the Rail and Public Transportation Security Act of 2007 passed the House Homeland Security Committee by a 30-0 margin, proof that the bill is genius or boondoggle. It’s clearly not genius. Among other things, this bill authorizes the secretary of homeland security to make grants for up to 5-year periods to finance as-of-yet-unspecified projects undertaken by private rail carriers, state, local and tribal governments, colleges and universities, consultancies, “nonprofit employee labor organizations” and others. The threat assessments in this bill call for monitoring the terror threat against school buses, which is undoubtedly a first. Additionally, it hands the District a tidy $20 million for security improvements to Union Station.

Sure, some good could come of these grants. The opposite could just as easily be true. No one knows, because the projects are still a twinkle in their future creators’ eyes. Meanwhile, scant oversight language exists to govern them once they’re born. Naturally, Washingtonians across the spectrum support this legislation, from Rep. Tom Davis, Virginia Republican, to Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s Democratic representative. Meanwhile, the D.C. Council is conspicuously quiet on dangerous chemicals even though it hasn’t secured anything resembling its initial stated goal of rerouting the chemicals outside the city, which, truth be told, was impossible from the beginning. All they’ve gotten are assurances from the Department of Homeland Security and rail carrier CSX Corp. That is, until the money shows up.

For this story to end with a pile of federal cash with few restrictions and scant oversight progress would be no surprise. Neither would it surprise that such grants which simply throw money at a problem are far from certain to make the city appreciably safer.

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