TCS Daily

Sick Transit

By Veronique de Rugy - August 1, 2005 12:00 AM

The surest way for an industry to get a boost in federal funding is for it to suffer a terrorist attack. Such is the case with transit security. But will more spending make us safer? Not necessarily.

Pointing to the vulnerability of public transit systems in the aftermath of two attacks on the London subway system, Republicans and Democrats alike are asking for significant increases in spending for public transit systems. Sen. Judd Gregg (R-NH) recently called for $100 million in additional spending. Banking Committee Chairman Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala) called for a $1.2 billion increase. Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) requested $1.3 billion more. All of this pales compared with the $6 billion bump asked for by William Millar, President of the American Public Transportation Association, to upgrade transit security.


One common criticism of transit security spending is to point out the large gap between funding levels for aviation security and transit security. Since September 11th, the federal government has spent $18 billion on airline security, compared with $250 million for transit.


But this is the wrong way to think about the problem since spending should not occur without a careful cost-benefit analysis. While members of Congress often overlook this common sense principle, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff repeatedly pledged to make it the foundation of his Department's philosophy. On July 14th, he explained why he wouldn't change his transit security policy based on a single event. He said "The truth of the matter is that a fully loaded commercial airplane with jet fuel has the capacity to kill 3,000 people. A bomb in a subway car may kill 30 people. When you start to think about priorities, you are going to think about making sure you don't have a catastrophic thing first."


In other words, DHS concentrates its efforts on a wide range of threats -- from threats against mass transit to nuclear threats -- and the scale of the response should be based on the probability and consequences of each threat. In that sense, mass transit is and should be a low priority.

Yet, the Secretarys comments drew sharp criticisms from Senate Democrats who said that mass transit systems are highly vulnerable to terrorists. However, the logic that consists in justifying federal involvement in security in the name of the vulnerability of a given industry is deeply flawed. All transportation systems and infrastructures have inherent weaknesses. So if vulnerability was the rationale for federal intervention, the job of the federal government would be infinite.


Moreover, while the Department is obviously committed to help secure mass transit systems, it makes more sense for local and state authorities to provide most of the funding. Transit systems are largely regulated and supervised by state and local authorities. Also, state and local officials control almost all of whats needed to provide security for mass transit. Local law enforcement officers better understand the unique design characteristics of their local subway, ferry or rail systems than federal agents.


Interestingly, mass transit security is a low priority for state and local authorities. Since September 11th, they have received over $8 billion from the federal government in grants -- and will receive an addition $2.4 billion in FY2006. That money could have been used for mass transit security but most states decided not to.


Throwing money at transit security is very unlikely to be the solution to the problem. The London subway system is known to be one of the best protected in the world after fighting Irish Republican Army terrorists threatened the city's mass transit for decades. Large public investment in rail and subway surveillance did not prevent the tragic events that took place in London last month.


The difficulty of safeguarding subways comes from the fact that they are part of a very open system where people need to have quick access. As London Mayor Ken Livingstone explained recently, it would be impractical to install airport-style security in mass transit or to insist on measures such as bag checks and screening. Unless you wanted the death of the system itself.


So what is the solution? When protecting subways, as with all stationary targets, the attacker has a natural advantage because he gets to choose where to attack. Because of this advantage for terrorists, intelligence gathering and counter-intelligence are often the most cost-effective defenses. The federal government should place a large portion of its homeland security funds into thwarting the attackers before the attack is even launched.   


The second-best solution to address transit security is to mitigate damage after an attack.  Without knowing where or how the attack will occur, the authorities can lower the expected damage by developing plans for the aftermath of an attack.  According to Brian M. Jenkins, a Rand Corp. transportation security expert and a research associate at the Mineta Transportation Institute, most efforts in transit security should be geared toward emergency response.


The common path to bad security decisions is a knee-jerk reaction to the news of the day. That's what many in Congress are doing today by trying to drastically increase the funding for transit security. Unfortunately, when money is allocated on a political basis rather than a sound, cost-benefit analysis, we can be sure that the new funding will not result in increased security.


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