The Brussels terrorist attacks show how subway passengers can be even more vulnerable than airline travelers. But that’s not where public attention — or federal security spending — has gone in the United States.
The Transportation Security Administration, created after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks largely to screen airline passengers, patrols rail systems but assigns 93 percent of its roughly 50,000 employees to aviation security. The chief federal grant program to help local subway and transit agencies protect against terrorism has been cut by more than three-quarters since the late 2000s.
“The funding has gone down, but the threat to mass transit systems has gone up,” Rep. Eric Swalwell, a California Democrat, said in an interview. “We’re moving the funding in the wrong direction. I don’t think our enemies could better signal to us where they intend to attack.”
To be sure, federal spending on security measures for transit systems is only a part of the effort to protect U.S. rail and transit systems from terrorists. Most of the responsibility to keep them safe lies with local law enforcement agencies.
But transit systems are attractive targets for terrorists because of their high ridership, expensive infrastructure, economic importance and location in large metropolitan areas or tourist destinations, according to a 2009 Government Accountability Office report. That adds up to a high potential for mass casualties and damage to the economy.
The suicide bomber who detonated an explosive in the Brussels subway killed more people — 20 — than the bombs that badly damaged the city’s airport, killing 11.
Other attacks have been equally deadly. At least 40 people died in a bombing on the Moscow metro on March 29, 2010. On July 11, 2006, at least 209 people were killed and hundreds more injured when seven bombs exploded on a commuter rail line in Mumbai. Attacks on the Madrid and London transit systems killed 247 people in 2004 and 2005.
Since 2009, U.S. law enforcement agencies have foiled separate attempts to bomb subways in New York and Washington — the nation’s two biggest metro systems.
“The reality is that transportation hubs have served as lightning rods for terrorists and will continue to in the foreseeable future,” said Frank Cilluffo, director of the Center for Cyber and Homeland Security at George Washington University.
TSA’s budget is heavily weighted in favor of aviation. For 2016, the Obama administration proposed a $7.6 billion budget for the agency that would spend 76 percent on aviation security, compared with 1.1 percent on surface transportation. The bulk of the remaining amount is earmarked for intelligence and other agency functions.
The U.S. Transit Security Grant Program, which is administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, gave out $389 million in 2008. Within four years, however, the program, which funds such things as extra police patrols and surveillance cameras, was cut to $87.5 million and has roughly stayed the same since.
A group of 67 lawmakers, including Swalwell, wrote Wednesday to leaders of the House committee that sets homeland security spending, urging an increase in the program to $105 million. Swalwell said he has unsuccessfully sought more funds since 2013.
President Barack Obama proposed $87 million for the program in 2017, according to FEMA’s website.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees TSA and FEMA, had no immediate response to questions about the relative funding of surface and air transportation security.
“We understand the committee is under difficult funding constraints and agree that taxpayer dollars must be spent wisely,” said Swalwell’s letter. “However, significant threats to the safety of our homeland remain. Federal funding must be continued at a sufficient amount to ensure security for the American people.”
Swalwell said the grant program had paid the San Francisco region’s Bay Area Rapid Transit system $30 million to make security improvements to a tunnel beneath the San Francisco Bay, but more work was needed.
Cilluffo, who served as a homeland security adviser to President George W. Bush, said spending on hardening mass transit systems against attackers pales in comparison to aviation and the latest attacks highlight the need for more effort.
There is justification for spending $150 million to $200 million a year on the grant program, according to Christian Beckner, deputy director at Cilluffo’s center. Beckner compiled the program’s annual spending figures.
Since the Brussels attacks, the New York Police Department has deployed additional counter-terrorism resources across the city, including the subway system, according to posts on the agency website. That included teams with dogs in crowded areas and transit stations.
Still, the city has felt the sting of decreasing federal assistance, said Stephen Davis, NYPD’s deputy commissioner of public information.
“Any cut in terrorism funding to New York — to what is widely recognized as the nation’s top terror target — would be irresponsible,” Davis said.
The Transit Security Grant Program is the primary source of money to pay for security needs at public transportation agencies, and the current funding is 78 percent below 2008 levels, said Michael Melaniphy, president and chief executive officer of the American Public Transportation Association.
“We live in dangerous times, and public transit security federal funding is inadequate,” Melaniphy said in an emailed statement. “With transit ridership and security risks growing, we remain concerned with this underinvestment in the security of our nation’s transit systems.”
Lawrence Hanley, international president of the Amalgamated Transit Union, also has called for increased spending on security.
“We haven’t exercised anywhere near the same diligence with respect to transit facilities that we have with airports and airlines,” Hanley said. “You can’t have metal detectors at every bus stop, but there are precautions we should be taking.”
Some security experts say that additional spending on transportation security isn’t needed and that efforts to do so are mostly intended to reassure the public.
“The reality is we’re not going to turn our subways and buses into armed camps,” Jack Riley, director of RAND’s National Security Research Division. “We can’t afford it. It’s not practical.”
(c) 2016, Bloomberg · Alan Levin, Jeff Plungis