A top Dept. of Homeland Security official says current federal funding for rail transit is "appropriate" but in the wake of the terrorist attack on railroads in Spain, he left the door open for possible budget increases.

Hutchinson calls current
funding level "appropriate" (Photo courtesy of Dept. of Homeland Security)

Asa Hutchinson, DHS's under secretary for border and transportation security, told a House subcommittee March 17 that the department has worked "very aggressively" on rail security and provided $115 million in security aid to mass transit systems over the last two years. In addition, he told the infrastructure and border security subcommittee that transit agencies may use some of the $894 million in urban area security grants DHS has available. Hutchinson also noted that the Bush administration's budget request for fiscal 2005 seeks to boost funding for the urban security grants to $1.45 billion.

Rep. Loretta Sanchez of California, the subcommittee's ranking Democrat, noted that DHS spends only 2% of its budget for rail. Hutchinson agreed that "there's much more invested in aviation security," but he said that's largely because Congress set specific aviation security benchmarks for DHS, including screening for passengers and baggage.

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Sanchez acknowledged the differences between aviation and transit, which carries many more passengers and is a more open system. But she said, "When we talk to the transit systems, they're telling us...we need tons more money for keeping this system safe and its really a funding problem."

Hutchinson said that the investment level is "appropriate." He said, "As we continue to develop this, it might need to grow." But he added that at present, DHS isn't looking at 100% screening of rail transit passengers but aiming to team with state and local governments and transit authorities on security measures.

Greg Hull, the American Public Transportation Association's director of operations, safety and security programs, says "Our industry is an open infrastructure and we transport 16 times the number of people that are transported on domestic airlines. With that volume of people it makes it impractical to use applications that you would find at the airports." He says APTA wants to see a separate line-item in the DHS or Dept. of Transportation budgets for transit security. There isn't one now.