Senate panel OKs rail, maritime security bills

The Senate Commerce Committee on Thursday approved two bipartisan bills that would increase the amount of federal funding for rail and maritime security efforts by $4 billion.

The committee reported out two measures that would add $2 billion over five years for each effort. The rail security legislation requires the Homeland Security and Transportation departments to conduct a vulnerability study on security efforts, and would authorize $100 million over the next two years for research and development.

The bill also would set up a $350 million grant program for infrastructure improvements nationwide, and it would authorize $670 million over five years for tunnel security improvements in New York, Baltimore and Washington. It also incorporates a whistleblower protection provision for rail workers who disclose security-related problems.

The maritime security bill approved Thursday would devote $400 million annually over five years to raise security efforts at the nation's ports, including increased tracking of intermodal cargo, increased research on blast-resistant vessels, and infrastructure improvement. Originally, the legislation directed the Homeland Security Department to enact a user fee to fund the increased security spending.

However, the committee approved an amendment by Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., striking the user fee language from the bill. Lott said these security efforts should be funded through customs fees paid by port users.

"The money is there," Lott said. "It should be used to pay for these improvements, instead of being used by everybody for all sorts of things," including energy bill provisions and welfare funding, Lott said.

But Commerce ranking member Ernest (Fritz) Hollings, D-S.C., said Lott's amendment in essence turns the bill into an unfunded mandate, because there is no language in it preventing customs fees from being used for non-germane projects.

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