In the wake of the terrorist attacks on the airport and subway system in Brussels, a group of lawmakers in Congress is pushing to increase funding to provide better security on the country’s mass transit systems.
On Wednesday, 66 House Democrats urged the Homeland Security appropriations subcommittee to set aside $105 million to help local transit systems improve security. That’s $20 million more than President Barack Obama requested in his 2017 budget proposal and a drop in the bucket compared to the billions the country spends annually on aviation security.
An explosion in the Maelbeek Station on the Brussels Metro killed 20 people Tuesday. One of the suspected bombers, Khalid El Bakraoui, was killed in the suicide attack, which happened near the headquarters of the European Commission.
Another 11 people were killed in twin blasts at the city’s Zaventem International Airport, which remains closed through Sunday.
Members of Congress from California and Washington state to North Carolina to Florida are expressing worry that U.S. transit systems, including the busy subways in New York City and Washington, D.C., are vulnerable to a similar attack.
“This week’s horrific terrorist attacks in Brussels – one of which targeted a busy subway station – underscore the pressing need to keep America’s bus, rail and ferry systems safe,” said Rep. Eric Swalwell, a Democrat from California’s East Bay area who was the lead author of the letter and is a member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
$7.6 billion President’s 2017 budget request for aviation security
$85 million President’s 2017 budget request for transit security
Swalwell and the other lawmakers also requested that the Transit Security Grant Program, administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, be kept separate from other security preparedness grants.
The funding for transit security is paltry compared to the $7.6 billion requested in next year’s budget for the Transportation Security Administration, the agency that focuses primarily on aviation security.
Unlike air passengers, rail transit, ferry and bus passengers are generally not screened before they board.
According to the American Public Transportation Association, Americans took 10.8 billion transit trips in 2014, the highest level of ridership in 58 years.
The nation’s transit systems were supposed to get more security funding from FEMA under the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007. But since 2011, the Transit Security Grant Program has provided less than $100 million a year.
An attack on any of these systems could kill thousands, flood rail tunnels and stations and cripple major metropolitan areas.
66 House Democrats, in a letter to the Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee
“An attack on any of these systems could kill thousands, flood rail tunnels and stations, and cripple major metropolitan areas,” the lawmakers wrote.
They said the deadly attacks on rail and bus systems in Madrid in 2004 and London in 2005 highlighted the “open and porous nature” of mass transit.
“Terrorists are well aware of these facts and have targeted such entities many times,” they wrote.
Amtrak and many transit systems have their own police departments. Those forces are occasionally augmented with teams of TSA agents under a program known as VIPR (pronounced “viper”).
VIPR, or Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response, teams are not used exclusively to bolster transit security, however. They’re also deployed at special events such as sports tournaments and presidential inaugurations.
In a statement Tuesday, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said that TSA was deploying additional security to airports, rail and transit stations.
71 percent of terrorist attacks on surface transportation targets worldwide from 1970 to 2014 were on mass transit systems.
Of the more than 3,700 terrorist attacks worldwide on surface transportation between 1970 and 2014, 71 percent struck mass transit, according to an analysis by the Mineta Transportation Institute at San Jose State University.
In testimony to the House Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee last April, Michael Melaniphy, the president and CEO of the American Public Transportation Association, noted that nearly $389 million was made available for transit security in 2008, the first year after Congress approved the 9/11 Act.
By 2015, the funding had dropped to $87 million – a decline of 78 percent.
Americans took 10.8 billion transit trips in 2014, the highest level of ridership in 58 years.
Melaniphy told lawmakers that the funding levels are “woefully inadequate.”
“With transit ridership and security risks growing,” he testified, “we remain concerned with this underinvestment in the security of our nation’s transit systems.”
Transit security funding
Federal Emergency Management Agency grant programs, and 2016 funding levels:
Transit Security Grant Program $87 million
Intercity Passenger Rail Program $10 million
Intercity Bus Security Grant Program $3 million