Costing Out Security

The economic burdens of "hardening" transit systems are huge--and raise politically divisive questions.
September 2005
John E. Petersen
By John E. Petersen  |  Columnist
John E. Petersen was GOVERNING's Public Finance columnist. He was a Professor of Public Policy and Finance at the George Mason School of Public Policy.

The bombings of the London underground and bus system bring renewed attention to keeping public transportation systems safe from terrorists. A subtext to this quest is the cost of transit security and its implications for cities--the hard choices that will have to be made about spending priorities, fares and how much security is enough. A recent national survey indicated that 70 percent of those asked-- most of whom did not use public transit--thought that subway, bus and train security precautions should be similar to those used for airline passengers. The potential economic burdens are huge. Exactly how large these will be, how they are shared, and the implications for where we choose to work and live are critical and potentially divisive political questions.

The cost of increased security is both a public and private matter. For air travelers, guards and gadgets cost money--$7.50 per airline passenger trip in added public costs. For the 1.7 million daily airline passengers, the "private" costs are increased travel times and discomfort--partially disrobing, being patted down and giving up nail files make entering the friendly skies more akin to a police lineup.

Public transit presents a very different picture. Every workday, 32 million rides are taken on subways, buses or railways. The homeland security funds spent on public transit are 1.6 cents per passenger. The disparity in spending between air traffic and public transportation has brought calls to place more emphasis on "hardening" city transit systems.

Public costs may come in terms of more transit police, scanners, monitors and bomb squads. But who is to pay? London, where the subway and bus system is heavily used and expensive, spent money on security to guard its underground against the earlier threat of Irish rebel bombings. It monitors travelers with 1,600 closed-circuit televisions. A public transit system is critical there as a matter of public policy. The city, in order to curb traffic congestion, set high tariffs on the use of automobiles in its downtown area, a policy that has been hugely successful.

But the United States is different, and the increased costs would be borne at the state and local levels, which means increases in fares and local taxes. More spending for greater transit security is not equally shared throughout the nation. The terrorist threat and thus the potential burdens are by far greatest for the major hub cities. Without public transit, central cities--historically made possible by concentrating people together--would, according to some observers, be vulnerable to shrinkage or even collapse. There is much irony in this. Increased urbanization, with its alleged environmental and social advantages, could well be stalled by terrorist threats. The centrifugal forces of spreading out activity and, in the process, guzzling ever more gas may be strengthened.

A case in point is the financially troubled Washington, D.C., Metro's subway extension to Tysons Corner and Dulles airport in Northern Virginia. The first-stage capital costs have climbed from $1.5 billion to an estimated $1.8 billion. The project is already marginal in terms of federal cost-benefit analysis. Added costs and inconveniences of increased security will further strain the ad hoc regional subsidy scheme by which one-half of the system's operating costs are met by state and local government contributions. That may be enough to pitch the project into fiscal limbo unless the public can be induced to accept large fare hikes or reduced service standards (or both).

Attempting to expand public transit when private commuting alternatives are both prevalent and encouraged by a national policy of low energy costs is hard enough. The added costs of increased security further tips the balance toward greater dispersion of population and activity into the hinterlands. The costs of this de facto policy in terms of added congestion, increased commuting times, greater energy use and environmental degradation will be there. But, they will be diffused, absorbed individually, and thus "privatized."

Reacting to the London terrorist attack, Joel Kotkin, writing in the Washington Post, looked to the critical need of cities to provide security. To him, countering the gathering threats is a matter of life and death for modern-day cities. The editors of the Economist, on the other hand, see protecting the transit system completely as impractical. Stoic Londoners, they say, will simply have to put their heads down, stiffen their upper lips and live through it. Who can say which vision is correct--and for which country? But, when it comes to the public and private costs of security, these are clearly dangerous times for those who live in and govern cities--and for the cities themselves.