Thursday, July 14, 2005

Senate Re-Examines Spending for Railway Security

WASHINGTON -- As Congress considers spending more on rail security, records show that the Homeland Security Department has spent less than 7 percent of the $10 million it received this year to inspect and patrol rail lines.
Senators began debate on the Homeland Security Department's overall budget Monday, a month after a committee slashed $50 million for railway security. Lawmakers are expected to restore that money because of the London transit bombings, and Democrats are looking to add $350 million more.
Democrats also say that the Bush administration hasn't moved quickly enough to spend the money it already has. Congress approved $150 million in local grants for upgrading transit security beginning last October, but the money didn't begin flowing until April.
Lawmakers also gave the Transportation Security Administration $10 million to make sure rail systems are taking enough precautions to prevent terrorist attacks. But spending reports show that as of May 31 - two-thirds of the way into the federal budget year - the TSA had made plans to spend only $711,000.
And it had yet to spend any of the $2 million for canine teams to patrol rail and subway stations in search of explosives.
"How hard is it to spend money that's already been allocated, especially since these security measures are so badly needed to protect America's commuters?" asked Mississippi Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Homeland Security.
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., accused the TSA of "slow-walking the critical security projects and initiatives that will help to make our commuters and our country safer."
TSA spokesman Mark Hatfield said the agency has brought 56 rail inspectors on board since May 31 and will have 100 deployed in 18 cities by the end of August.
Many of the inspectors are already in the field, Hatfield said. Some have gone through a specialized five-week training course, and others are awaiting the training.
Hatfield said the agency also expects to spend all $2 million for 30 canine teams by Sept. 30. Ten mass transit systems have been selected for canine teams, which include a dog and a local law enforcement officer.
Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Ky., who chairs the House Appropriations Homeland Security subcommittee, is among those in Congress who say that TSA focuses too much on security for air travelers at the expense of surface transportation. The TSA spends about $5 billion annually on aviation security.
Last year, Rogers' subcommittee ordered the Homeland Security Department to submit a five-year plan outlining how it would secure all transportation modes. The committee still is waiting for the plan.
The Madrid railway bombings that killed 191 people in March 2004 focused attention on rail security. Two months after the attacks, Homeland Security officials issued the first federal security directive to protect rail passengers from terrorism.
Railway operators were required to designate security coordinators, remove trash cans in some places and erect vehicle and pedestrian barricades in others. TSA inspectors are supposed to make sure the order is carried out.
Meanwhile, two senators offered an amendment to the spending bill to direct more money to emergency first-responders in most states than other competing plans offer.
The amendment, sponsored by Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., would distribute $763 million among all states and earmark another $1.2 billion for the highest-risk areas. By comparison, a competing Senate plan would give $579 million to states and $1.3 billion to high-risk areas, according to a Congressional Research Service study.
"Do we truly believe that now, during a period of heightened alert, is the time to scale back our efforts at preventing and responding to terrorist attacks?" Collins asked. "I think not."
Critics noted that Collins' plan distributes less money to the highest-risk areas.
The plan moves funds from areas under threat "and dumps the money into a giant pork-barrel program," said Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J.
The Senate is expected to vote on the amendment Tuesday.