What’s Taking So Long? The MTA’s Security Plan

It’s a nightmare scenario that haunts subway riders: A dirty bomb is detonated on a crowded train, killing thousands and injuring even more in the ensuing panic.

Most security experts describe the city’s subway system as one of the most likely terrorist targets and stress that its sheer size and openness make it particularly vulnerable to attack. And yet the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has spent only $115 million on mass transit throughout the country, while giving $15 billion to the airlines for security needs.

“Mass transit carries 16 times more passengers than the airlines,” said Linton Johnson, a spokesman for San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit subway system. “Yet transit systems and commuter rail lines get a fraction of that Homeland Security money. If there was an attack, then they’d find out. It’d be a shame if someone has to die for us to get the money we need.”

Since 9/11, subway systems around the country have scrambled to help secure their systems through a combination of federal aid and by dipping into their own operating budgets. Yet while many of these transit agencies have already exhausted those limited Homeland Security grants and are pleading for much more funding, New York’s sprawling Metropolitan Transportation Authority has only spent a portion of the $591 million it has budgeted for security.

That revelation came to light during a routine budget hearing at the City Council on March 18, when Gregory S. Kullberg, the M.T.A.’s grim-faced director of capital program budgets, said that the agency had spent $25 million to $30 million of the allocation so far, sending local politicos and editorial writers into a frenzy. “It’s shocking to hear that so little progress has been made toward securing our transit system from terrorist attack,” fumed Council member John C. Liu, who chairs the Council’s transportation committee, shaking his head in disbelief. By the end of the year, the agency vowed to spend about $200 million in security-related work and an additional $100 million in security consulting and design contracts awarded last year.

Other municipal transit agencies don’t seem to have had such trouble spending their smaller allocations.

In Washington, D.C., the Metro has gone through the $49 million it was allocated by the federal government soon after 9/11. “It’s all been spent,” said Steven Taubenkibel, a Metro spokesman. “We spent it on additional explosive-detection canine dogs, ID systems at entrance locations, bomb-resistant trash cans, a pilot program for additional cameras, automatic vehicle locators, chemical sensors in train stations, closed-circuit TV.” The agency, which also spent several million of its own funds to purchase video equipment in buses and explosive-containment trash cans, is seeking $260 million in federal money to help build a backup operations control center. “If we had resources like [the $591 million allocated to the M.T.A.], we would be spending it immediately. New York and D.C. are two areas where security is critical and you need to act.”

In San Francisco, the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system spent $20 million since 9/11 to improve security for the heart of the system, the Trans-Bay tube. “We’ve bought security cameras, police overtime, hardware to improve security, detection devices, alarms, anti-terror training,” said Mr. Johnson, who identified nearly $200 million in immediate security needs for the BART. “We’ve worked with Laurence Livermore labs. And yet once they develop these products like detection devices, they’re too expensive and we don’t have the money.”

In Los Angeles, transportation officials have spent $6.8 million in federal funds to harden the city’s new subway system with closed-circuit TV, barriers and emergency-response training, in addition to $40 million in local funds on security guards and other enhancements. “Before we got the money, we knew how we were going to spend it,” said Paul Lennon, director of intelligence for the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority. “All this pot of money, you get bogged down in discussing how to spend it. New York isn’t comparable. They have layers of management and layers of politics-they all want their particular cows to be considered.”

So what’s taking so long in New York? The M.T.A. asserts that it would rather take the time to make the right choices than throw the money at every proposal that comes its way. “Could we go through the $500 million?” asked M.T.A. spokesman Tom Kelly. “Absolutely-in about a week, if you took every cockamamie scheme that everybody brought to us to improve security.”

Instead, the agency has four engineering firms-the Jacobs Engineering Group, Parsons Brinc- kerhoff, the URS Corporation, and a joint venture of Washington Group International and the HNTB Companies-on contract to supply advice and the accompanying construction. “They give us all the architectural plans and surveys of what we need to do,” said Mr. Kelly, who stressed that the agency has spent tens of millions of dollars out of its operating budget on security-related needs in recent years.

“If they told us we need to put another foot of concrete around the tunnels, then that has been paid for,” Mr. Kelly added. “Look, this is a 100-year-old system that now you have to put in all new technological stuff. We have to do it in the best way possible. Anything you do in New York is going to be taken up by every other system in the world-if it’s good enough for New York City, it’s good enough for every system.”

And Mr. Kelly, who sat and shook his head throughout most of Mr. Liu’s questions and comments during the recent City Council hearing, is angered at politicians quick to attack the behemoth agency. “What I resent is the fact that they make it appear that we are not concerned about the safety of our customers,” he said. “Not only do we use the system, but our families do. And you know that [politicians] would be the first ones to criticize us if these steps prove to be unwise.”

Setting Priorities

Some have criticized the agency’s security staff and spending priorities. “I’m not clear what they’re doing with this money,” said Dave Katzman of the Transport Workers Union. “Most of these high-tech detectors don’t work underground because of the high levels of steel dust. They seem to have spent a lot of money on consultants to tell them what to do instead of taking real security measures like protecting the rail yards which are not properly secured right now.”

The M.T.A.’s director of security, Bill Morange, has been meeting with law-enforcement groups and security organizations to help assess the agency’s needs, but his tenure has gotten a mixed reaction. “Morange is a perfectly pleasant guy, but he doesn’t seem to know much about transit,” said one longtime security consultant. “Why did they hire him? He seems to be taking a wait-and-see attitude, and everyone knows that the subway is one of the ripest targets in the whole country. While you’re sitting there thinking about what to do, someone could set off a bomb-boom!”

But Mr. Morange has earned the respect of his colleagues, including his counterpart in Los Angeles. “I know Bill, and he knows what he’s doing,” said Mr. Lennon. “It requires a lot of focused attention in a place like New York, with all its politics, but he’s capable of that.”

And longtime transit advocates understand the delay in spending on security. “Have they spent enough and on the right things?” asked Beverly Dolinsky, the chair of the N.Y.C. Transit Riders Council, an advocacy organization. “It takes a while to do things. They’ve been increasing the number of police and canine units, hardening the system. First of all, you want to do it right, and you have to figure out the best way to spend it.”

Security experts agree that money shouldn’t be spent when trying to secure a system of the M.T.A.’s size and scope without doing a cost-benefit analysis first. “I’m not terribly worried [about the delay in spending],” said Robert Castelli, a professor of criminal justice and security management at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “My concern is that once they get all the advice, that they won’t spend it. It may be too much of a lag, and you have to ask: How good are these consultants? And how long do you want to wait for your advice? It’s great to hire top consultants as long as you don’t avoid dedicating yourself to the end game-helping secure the subways.”

And, considering the sprawling nature of the subway system and the sheer volume of commuters, the larger question is: Can New York’s subway ever be truly secured? “Will we ever come up with a 100 percent secure system? Probably not,” said Mr. Castelli, looking at the impracticality of security measures such as metal detectors. “You’re going to have to stop every single person with a briefcase or a backpack. It would be so unwieldy, it would be impossible.”