Just days after terrorist leader Osama bin Laden was killed in a U.S. military operation, officials from mass transit systems nationwide urged Congress to fully fund the security grants that were recently subject to a $50 million cut in the 2011 budget agreement.
Wednesday morning's hearing of the House Homeland Security Committee represented a stark dichotomy between the week's events and budget realities.
While bin Laden’s death gave politicians from both sides of the aisle the chance to tout their anti-terrorism credentials, the recent FY 2011 spending bill -- a bipartisan agreement between House Republicans, Senate Democrats and the White House -- cuts funding that local officials say is critical to preventing terrorist attacks on mass transit systems.
The budget deal reduces funding for the Transit Security Grant Program from $300 million to $250 million. Those cuts are already having an effect on safety efforts in transit systems, local officials say.
The program, which falls under FEMA's jurisdiction, is intended to fund efforts to protect transit riders from terrorism, natural disasters and other emergencies. It funds security personnel, equipment such as explosive detectors, and bomb-sniffing dogs, among other things. It also helps pay for capital expenses like strengthened tunnels and surveillance equipment.
Transit systems in the U.S. haven't been subject to a major terrorist attack, though attempts on the New York and Washington, D.C.-area subway systems were foiled in 2009 and 2010, respectively.
But attacks in recent years on transit systems in London, Madrid, Minsk, Moscow and Mumbai underscore the fact that transit is an attractive target to terrorists, according to advocates for the grant program.
The way the grant program is administered has been criticized by the federal government’s own watchdogs, who say it lacks metrics to measure performance – a common criticism of many federal grant programs. But supporters say the need for the spending still exists.
“Transit security grants express a commitment on the part of the federal government to protect not only the trains and rails, and the stations that rise above them, but also the people who ride those trains,” said Richard Daddario, deputy commissioner of counter-terrorism at the New York City Police Department, in his written testimony.
In Chicago's transit system, for example, the grant has helped fund security cameras in stations and rail cars, training for security personnel, deployment of explosive detection dogs and public information campaigns. “Without that funding,” testified Chicago Transit Authority President Richard Rodriguez, “none of these efforts could continue.”
CTA spends about $50 million annually of its own funding on security beyond the federal aid it receives through the grant. The entire Chicago area received $16.9 million in FY 2010 under the program, so the federal aid is just a fraction of all CTA security spending.
But transit advocates say every dollar counts. This year's cuts are already having an effect: CTA will likely have to delay by at least one year the installation of security cameras in 400 rail cars, according to Rodriguez.
Transit officials also argue that as the program gets cut, they'll be forced to close the gap on their own. That means they'd have to take money from their operating budgets, likely resulting in reduced service, just to keep the systems safe.
Advocates for the grants, including the American Public Transportation Association, say the cuts are especially concerning given the existing disparity between transit security and airline security spending. The federal government spends 4 cents for every transit trip, compared to $8.67 for aviation, according to APTA. Meanwhile, they say, the terrorist threat to transit is just as great as that to the airlines, if not more so.
The president’s proposed 2012 budget calls for $300 million funding for the program -- the amount it would have received in 2011 prior to the cuts. But even that would be a disappointment for those pushing to boost transit security. APTA estimates a $6.4 billion investment is needed to secure the nation's transit systems.