Bombings in London could spur bills on transit security

Congressional efforts to strengthen security on public transportation this year could get nudged forward in the wake of Thursday's mass transit bombings in London.

"Until today it didn't look that good," House Homeland Security Emergency Preparedness, Science and Technology Subcommittee Chairman Peter King, R-N.Y., said of efforts to pass transportation security legislation this year. "Today might be a wake-up call."

King will introduce a bill this year that would authorize grants to Amtrak and other mass transit systems based on threat levels.

"We can't be fooling people and tell them that we can protect every train at every time," he said. "We can't protect everywhere all the time. We have to accept that."

By directing funding to high terrorist targets, including the boosting of bomb detection equipment and surveillance systems on subways, he said, "We can give layers of protection and hope for the best." Homeland Security Chairman Chris Cox, R-Calif., and all subcommittee chairmen will meet Tuesday to discuss their plans, King said.

Lawmakers are waiting on Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to present Congress with a national transportation security strategy, which King said could come next week. The strategy, required under last year's intelligence reform law, was initially due in April. Chertoff said Thursday, "We've done a fairly extensive review over the last few months," but later added, "I wouldn't make a policy decision driven by a single event."

A Senate fiscal 2006 Homeland Security spending bill set for floor debate next week provides $100 million for rail and transit security, a $50 million cut from current spending. In a letter sent Thursday to Senate Appropriations Committee leaders, American Public Transportation Association President William Millar argued, "This reduction would make it more difficult to adequately protect millions of Americans who ride public transportation each day."

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., will offer floor amendments to the spending bill that would add $100 million more for rail and transit security and $10 million more for bus security. The House voted in May to maintain spending at $150 million.

President Bush's fiscal 2006 budget included a $600 million request to provide states with funding to protect mass transit systems as well as ports, bridges and other critical infrastructure. Lawmakers criticized the president for lumping all the grant programs into one initiative, arguing it would set up competition for limited funding. House and Senate appropriators rejected the Bush proposal. A spokeswoman for Senate Banking Chairman Shelby said he is looking for a way to move legislation similar to a bipartisan bill approved by the committee last year that would authorize $5.2 billion over three years to upgrade public transportation security. Coincidentally, Shelby was in London Thursday to discuss Banking Committee issues.