While authorities boosted security around U.S. public transit systems, the deadly London bombings Thursday underscored the vulnerability of this country's surface transit network--because of its vast size and the lack of a comprehensive plan for protecting it.
About 90 percent of the Transportation Security Administration's $5.3 billion budget is earmarked for aviation, an allocation that prompted the bipartisan Sept. 11 Commission to warn government officials last year that they were still fighting "the last war" and that they needed to pay more attention to other forms of transportation.
"We are not safe from these types of terrorist attacks, particularly in some of these transportation modes," Tim Roemer, a Democratic member of the Sept. 11 Commission, said after Thursday's bombings. "We have not conducted even some of the most basic strategic and security plans that would allocate resources in a cost-effective way."
Nonetheless, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said, "I think our transit systems are safe," even as he announced that the government was raising the threat level around mass transit from yellow to orange, the second-highest level. He said U.S. transit systems have added detection equipment and beefed up police surveillance, especially since the deadly attacks on the Madrid train system in March 2004.
Although public transit may have the highest profile because of the attacks in Madrid and London, government officials also worry about a huge array of other "soft targets," such as shopping malls, amusement parks, stadiums, utility sites and the food supply.
"We realize that an attack here could come in any form, at any place, on any timetable," Adm. James Loy, the deputy secretary of homeland security, told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in February.
But Loy offered no specifics for protecting those targets.
In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, the bulk of federal money was devoted to air security after the hijackings exposed a system vulnerable to assault.
Public transit officials say that policy has left them scraping for security funding, even though they operate a far larger network.
Americans take about 32 million trips on buses and trains daily, according to the American Public Transportation Association. That's about 16 times the number of people who fly each day, said Greg Hull, APTA's director of operations, safety and security programs.
Hull said surface transit security spending is "virtually a drop in the bucket [compared with air travel] and yet we know that public transit on an international level has been a focal point of terrorism."
Assessing public transit's security needs is difficult. Hull said a survey of member agencies identified $6 billion worth of needed security upgrades. But last month, the non-partisan Congressional Research Service said "there are no independent assessments of transit security needs and costs."
The report suggested that the needs may be so great, and money so tight, that it might be better to spend more on anti-terrorism intelligence-gathering and law enforcement than to try to fund improvements to numerous potential attack targets.
Lee Strickland, a former CIA intelligence analyst and now a University of Maryland professor of information policy, advocates a combination of more spending on intelligence-gathering to prevent attacks and increased reliance on such technology as bomb detectors and camera surveillance.
He said the key is to avoid lengthy screenings, because surface travelers are unlikely to tolerate long waits and delays could hurt the economy.
Two laws passed by Congress in 2002 required the TSA to deliver a national strategy for protecting mass transit, but it was never produced.
Legislation passed by Congress in the wake of the Sept. 11 Commission report also mandated the creation of a comprehensive strategy for safeguarding public transportation, but that deadline was missed by the Department of Homeland Security on April 1.
The commission concluded that security "perfection is unattainable." But it also said, "terrorists should perceive that potential targets are defended."