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Transit security in U.S. lagging, experts say

WASHINGTON—The Bush administration ratcheted up the terrorism alert level for the nation's mass transit systems to orange—the second highest level—after the deadly subway and bus bombings in London, and if you rode public transportation in much of America on Thursday, it was hard not to notice the added security.

Machine gun-toting police in fatigues and bulletproof vests rode Washington's subways. Usually desk-bound office workers donned iridescent green vests and patrolled San Francisco Bay subways to help police. Boston's transit system planned to run trains empty of passengers but with police aboard at night after the subway was shut down to keep an eye out for "any activity where there should be none." All Amtrak trains had police aboard.

But with millions of Americans relying on mass transit to get to work every day, critics said not enough had been done to shore up security on buses and rail cars since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. While some $20 billion has been spent to increase security for air travelers, mass transit has received just $250 million in federal funding for security.

That 80-1 funding gap comes even though far more people take mass transit daily than fly. Some 32 million passenger trips are taken every day on the nation's rails and buses, 16 times the number of daily U.S. airline-passenger trips, according to the American Public Transportation Association. Most mass-transit trips occur in major cities—such as New York and Washington—that are thought to be the most likely terrorist targets.

Daniel Prieto, a homeland security expert at Harvard University, said mass transit was the world's most frequent terrorism target, with attacks typically yielding many deaths. "So it makes no sense that we are spending cents on the dollar compared to what we are spending on planes," he said.

He and others acknowledged that the sheer number of mass transit riders, the openness of the systems and the need for speedy travel make it impractical to install the kinds of security measures that have become commonplace at airports.

"There is no silver bullet," Prieto said.

Daniel Grabauskas, the general manager of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, said there were limits on what transit officials could do.

"This has been one of the great fears for those of us who are in public transportation," Grabauskas said. "Unlike airports, where it is a closed system, you go through a checkpoint and are screened and you get in a terminal and on a plane, that is not something that is practicable for any of us in public transportation."

Even in security-obsessed Israel, suicide bombers are able to board buses and blow up themselves and others. And London has been known as a model of security, conditioned by the long-running terrorism campaign of the Irish Republican Army.

David Heyman, the director of the homeland security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a conservative research center in Washington, said Britain had premier intelligence and counterintelligence services and more cameras and surveillance in place than perhaps any other city in the world.

"And yet even there somehow, someone got bombs on board three subways and a bus," Heyman said. "That should be unsettling for us."

Heyman said the U.S. Department of Homeland Security had relied mostly on the traditional "guns, guards and gates" approach. Instead, he said, it should be doing more with technology to detect explosives, biological and chemical agents and to ferret out suspicious passengers with surveillance.

William Millar, the president of the American Passenger Transportation Association, said the Senate Appropriations Committee voted just last week to cut transit security funding for next year.

"This is a national security issue," Millar said. He said more federal funding would provide more manpower to guard trains and tracks as well as chemical sensors, surveillance systems and other technology.

The Homeland Security Department has suggested better protective measures since the March 2004 train bombings in Madrid, Spain, and more money for measures such as bomb-sniffing dogs. The centerpiece of the effort was a pilot program in the Maryland suburbs of Washington that tested methods to screen train passengers and their bags for explosives.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said there had been improvements in mass transit security, especially since the Madrid bombings laid bare the vulnerabilities of packed early-morning commuter trains.

"I think our transit systems are safe," he said.

Chertoff said that in coming weeks the department would issue a comprehensive plan to improve preparedness that would include rail security.

For some jittery American commuters, London's attacks gave them pause.

"It makes me want to think twice," said Kim Smith, 20, of Landover, Md., a suburb of Washington. "It makes me want to drive a car."

"You can't stop what you're doing. Life goes on."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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