U.S. lawmakers say more needs to be done to secure the nation's mass transit system. The issue was the focus of a Senate hearing Wednesday.
In the aftermath of deadly terrorist bombings on London's underground trains and buses in July, the chairwoman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee says not enough is being done in the United States to prevent similar attacks on its mass transit system.
Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, says the Department of Homeland Security, created after the September 11, 2001 hijacking attacks, may be too focused on aviation security at the expense of bus and rail security. "While it is understandable that after the 9/11 attacks air security would command our immediate focus, I believe it is now time to reassess priorities and evaluate our preparedness across all modes of public transportation," he said.
The top Democrat on the committee, Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, said the United States should not divert attention from the issue because it is dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. "The terrorists who struck us 9/11 are not going to take a holiday or a grace period because we have been hit by Hurricane Katrina. They are out there. We have to do everything we can urgently to increase our homeland defense of targets that may be vulnerable and therefore attractive to terrorists," he said.
The transit police chief of Washington's Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, Polly Hanson, told the panel her department is training employees to respond to a possible attack, and has begun a campaign calling on the public to be alert to suspicious activity or packages in the subway system.
But she said her department is in desperate need of resources to implement high-priority programs, including those to detect weapons of mass destruction, enhancing decontamination response and recovery operations, and increasing the number of cameras in rail cars and buses.
She blamed the Department of Homeland Security, or DHS, for not adequately funding mass transit security. "Less than $250 million of grant funding over three years has been allocated nationwide to transit systems since the creation of DHS in 2003. This amounts to an average of less than .03 percent of DHS's annual budget of $30 billion, and prospects are not looking better for the upcoming year."
But Homeland Security Assistant Secretary Edmund Hawley defended his agency's handling of mass transit securit. "No system is invulnerable no matter what the investment is. You cannot just take risk away. But you can do the prudent thing. The systems that you have deployed in the United States and the operating procedures that go with them are as good as anywhere in the world."
Mr. Hawley says his department is working to improve coordination and communication among federal, state and local governments and the transportation industry.
Also appearing at the hearing was Transportation Security Administration chief for the London underground, Michael Brown, who said his agency has improved staff training and held emergency exercises to better respond to any possible future attacks. In addition, he said the number of cameras in rail stations and trains will double from 6,000 to 12,000 in the next five years.
"Other efforts will include improvements in the communications systems by station and train radios and also allowing emergency services to use their radio systems underground. The day-to-day operational stand for security and British transport police operation has been enhanced following the addition of 100 police officers," he said.
On Thursday, the Senate committee will consider legislation calling for the development and testing of a new communications system that would survive a terrorist attack or natural disaster, allowing police, firefighters and medical personnel to communicate with each other during a national emergency.