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Feds Won't Fund Transit Safety

07.14.2005 12:28 | DISPATCHES

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has told the AP and testified before Congress that states and localities must fund security upgrades for public transportation, because federal money needs to go toward aviation.

"The truth of the matter is, 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 you start to think about your priorities, you're going to think about making sure you don't have a catastrophic thing first."

I agree - sort of. The main argument for investing more money in aviation security is that airplanes are easier to protect. As I've written before, you can get a plane pretty to close absolutely secure, since you only have to do it once--a plane, unlike a bus, doesn't start and stop and let all sorts of people on and off. But the idea that you protect a plane because of potential body counts seems to me a bit off-base. Chertoff compares 9/11 to the London attacks and then implies that any bus attack would be less destructive than any plane attack. Of course that isn't true; if someone leaves a crude nuclear device on a bus in Manhattan you can bet many more people would die than if a similar device was detonated on an airplane.

I suspect the real reason the federal government is not going to spend money on mass transit security is that the Homeland Security budget has been plundered by legislators who want pork. There is no question that the areas most at risk of terrorist attacks are large cities, port complexes and power plants. And in a sane world the big targets would also get the big money for security. But big spending bills are irresistible for legislators who need to get re-elected, so we end up spending homeland security money in places like Utah and Kansas.

And we end up with Wyoming, which has no discernible targets for terrorists, getting more Homeland Security dollars per capita than California. California has three of the nation's largest cities, two of its largest public transportation systems, nuclear power plants, fuel refineries, and the countries largest port complex. I doubt that even the most irrational terrorist would choose to assualt a Wyoming ranch when he could have a crack at California.

Consider today's editorial in the New York Times:

This was a sad week for the war on terror. The Senate voted, disgracefully, to shift homeland security money from high-risk areas to low-risk ones - a step that is likely to mean less money to defend New York and California against terrorism and more for states like Wyoming. Before the vote, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff made a powerful appeal to the senators to distribute the money based on risk. But the Senate, led by Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, and other small-state representatives, put political pork ahead of national security. It now falls to the House to fight for a financing formula that will keep the nation safe.

It is to Chertoff's credit that he argued against this funding formula. But he was up against an immoveable force, and now he needs to make silly arguments about why urban mass transit security should be underfunded. Which is too bad. Public transportation can never be made entirely safe, but it can be made much safer.


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