Rail representatives rip DHS grants bureaucracy

Amtrak inspector general highlights vast differences between airport and ground transit security.

The Homeland Security Department's grants process remains mired in bureaucracy, slowing the delivery of money and hindering security, witnesses told lawmakers at a hearing Wednesday.

William Millar, president of the American Public Transportation Association, told members of House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittees that DHS has created "an incredible bureaucratic process" for grant applicants. He described thickly layered application and approval procedures, and said in some instances, the challenges continue even after grants are awarded on paper, because the money never reaches its destination.

When asked to elaborate, Millar zeroed in on a specific office: "The Office of Grants and Training is what I think it's called this week," he said, drawing a laugh from lawmakers.

The Amalgamated Transit Union, which represents more than 180,000 transit workers in the United States and Canada, has not received enough grant money to provide members with adequate training on safety and anti-terror measures, said Michael Siano, the union's international executive vice president.

"The training we're getting is nil," Siano said. Members get instructions from a pamphlet and a 10-minute video, he said.

DHS spokesman Russ Knocke argued DHS must take steps to exercise adequate oversight to ensure the proper distribution of grants, and must hold recipients accountable.

"The issue of grants is one that involves tradeoffs," Knocke said. He added that the department is working to distribute guidance for potential applicants sooner. The department has moved the issuance of application instructions, which used to happen in the spring, to early January.

House Democrats for months have been pushing for improvements in DHS' handling of rail security, and have insisted that the Transportation Security Administration does not devote enough resources to ground transit. They have also argued TSA and Transportation Department employees need expanded whistleblower protections.

At Wednesday's hearing, Amtrak's inspector general presented testimony illustrating large discrepancies between rail and airport security checks.

Rail passengers do not undergo baggage inspections, with a few exceptions, said Fred Weiderhold, the IG. Amtrak passengers also are not checked against government watch lists, he said

Rep. John Duncan Jr., R-Tenn., said additional security measures need to be implemented to protect bus and train commuters.

"We're going ridiculously overboard at airports," Duncan said, expressing frustration that he has fought a losing battle to carry on his shaving cream.

But like Republicans on the House Homeland Security Committee, Duncan stopped short of endorsing a vast expansion of whistleblower protections.