2005-07-22 / Columnists

From the Editor’s Desk

By Howard Schwach


How much more valuable is one life on an airplane in relation to the same one life on a subway or a bus, especially if that life is in New York City?

According to Michael Chertoff, the new head of the Department of Homeland Security, there is no question. People who fly planes need all the federal protection they can get. Those who ride on trains and buses, however, deserve bupkis from the federal government.

“The truth,” Chertoff said, “ [is that] a fully loaded airplane with jet fuel has the capacity to kill 3,000 people. A bomb in a subway car may kill 30 people.”

Chertoff explained that statement by saying that the feds have to weigh their priorities and that a catastrophe trumps 30 or 40 deaths.

Isn’t it nice to know that we have such compassionate people at the helm of our federal agencies?

In fact, Chertoff is wrong both in his reasoning and in his facts.

The New York City subway carries 4.8 million riders daily. The Long Island Railroad carries 274,000 riders daily. Metro North adds another 250,000 riders each day to the mix. There are places such as Penn Station, Jamaica Station and Grand Central Station where the lines cross. At any give time, especially during rush hours, tens of thousands of people could very well be within the blast area or a bomb carried in a book bag, or of several book bags in the same subway or railroad car.

Substantially more than 3,000 riders could die in a terrorist attack on the underground transportation system during any rush hour on any day,

That is a chilling thought and it seems that the federal government chooses to ignore the fact, looking at rail transportation as simply a local issue.

After the attacks on the London (England) transportation facilities last week, one proposal before the Senate asked for $1.16 billion to safeguard transit systems in targeted cities. The Senate knocked the bill down to $100 million. Why? Because Senators from other parts of the nation where terrorist threats are not really in evidence still want a piece of the pie for their home states, regardless of whether there is a threat or not.

New York City alone is paying more than the $100 million a week for increased security in our subway system.

Even though we rationally know that there is not much that can be done to stop a dedicated terrorist who is willing to die from blowing something up, that does not mean that we should give up. We have to be even more proactive in protecting our subways and buses, not less.

Cameras are not the answer, unless somebody is watching them. Cameras in London caught the four bombers entering the system. That helped to identify the terrorists but not to stop them.

I have to tell you that I am a cynic who looks for things out of the ordinary. Had I been watching that camera at the time, I might have pulled the alarm. Four middle-eastern men in trail, all sauntering into the system carrying fairly identical backpacks, trying to look like they were not together at all. I might just have stopped them. Of course, that would have been breaking the law. After all, you cannot use racial profiling to stop men just because the look like Muslims and are acting in a suspicious manner. That is bad, bad, bad.

Unfortunately, that is the only way we are going to stop terrorists. We are going to have to be alert for groups such as those who enter our system and we can’t worry any more about political correctness than the terrorists do. This is a war and it is quickly coming home to roost.

The police department and fire department seem to be ready to handle the threat – at least as much as they can. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), the agency that runs our subways and buses, however, has become the “gang who can’t shoot straight.” The MTA seems unable to deal with spending the money necessary to augment security even when they have it.

Some time ago, in December of 2002, the agency was funded with $591 million to upgrade security. Nearly three years later, little of that money has been spent and what has been spent has been used for studies and hiring consultants, records show. That is not acceptable.

Other cities quickly used their money. Washington, D.C. and Boston used the money to install sensors to detect the presence of chemical agents. Atlanta has used its money to upgrade communication with police and fire departments. Houston used the money to place cameras on buses. The MTA has done none of those things.

In fact, the agency reportedly snubbed a top-secret plan for the U.S. Army to oversee a $250 million project that would have installed high-tech sensors, infrared cameras, waterproof metal gates to keep the system from flooding and space-age liners in the tunnels that run under the river.

The MTA turned down the program because it “wasn’t the best approach financially” and because it would have reportedly given the Army some control over schedules and routes.

“The Army decided that it wanted to control when and how it could have access to the trains and the right to alter scheduling,” an MTA spokesperson told reporters. “That was no acceptable to the agency.”

Nicholas Castle, the former MTA security chief who was fired in an unrelated matter, said that the deal fell apart because of the MTA’s “indifference on security issues.”

The MTA later responded in a prepared statement that the money is being used to fund projects that will soon be awarded to construction companies. The agency declined, however, to name the projects or the companies to which they will be awarded.

“You can’t go to K-Mart and pull these systems off the shelf,” an agency spokesperson said.

Peter Kalikow, the chairman of the MTA, said, “The easy way out would be to spend the money quickly, without a thorough analysis of the cost and benefit.”

“The technology for this kind of stuff is still emerging. When [that technology] is proven, we’ll be there. We don’t think that the money should be spent on unproven technology.”

What castle has to say seems to me to be closer to reality than what Kalikow had to say.

The MTA ha proven over and over again in the operation and maintenace of our bridges, our bus service, our subway service and in even in our EZ-Pass accounts that it cannot be tgrusted to do the right thing or even the rational thing.

The money to begin the safety and security upgrades is there. So, largely, is the technology. Other cities have already adapted the technology to their particular needs and they would not have used “untested technology” to do it.

To believe the MTA, you have to believe that everybody else is stupid.

If you believe the MTA about anything, from security to the new EZ-Pass then I have a subway tunnel you might like to buy. Give me a call.

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