War Stories

Safe Trains or Star Wars?

It’s time to consider the security budget—homeland and military—as a whole.

Police officers and a bomb-sniffing dog patrol a Washington, D.C., subway platform

Madrid, and now London: wake-up calls, as some call them, that mass transit is far more vulnerable to terrorist attacks than airplanes are. So, when will we wake up?

Last year, Congress approved $150 million in grants for security upgrades to local transit agencies. This year, the Senate Appropriations Committee voted to cut this program to $100 million. The full Senate takes up the bill soon. Even if the funding is restored—or doubled, or tripled—it’s a paltry sum.

The American Public Transportation Authority estimates that an extra $6 billion is needed to improve security on public railways, mass transit, bridges, and tunnels—$5.2 billion for capital investment and $800 million annually for salaries and operations. This is in addition to the $740 million that transit agencies nationwide spent on security last year. It’s also above and beyond the miserly $250 million that the federal government has spent on public-transit security in the four years since the attacks of Sept. 11.

High priorities on the APTA’s wish list include surveillance cameras, radio communications, chemical-biological-radiation detectors, code-controlled access to main facilities, as well as more funds for training, drills, and the development of security plans (which, outside a few big cities such as New York, are woefully lacking).

This $6 billion may be excessive. APTA, after all, is a lobbying organization; asking the government for money is what it does. The estimate is also based on an APTA survey that asked local transit agencies, “How much additional funding do you need in the long run to complete your capital program to maintain, modernize, and expand your security functions?” Few respondents are likely to low-ball such a query. Then again, many of them might have no idea what they need or how much it would cost; the actual sum may be lower, but it may be higher.

In any case, it’s a reasonable guess that the task would take billions of dollars—and that’s assuming no drastic measures such as, say, requiring train passengers and their luggage to pass through metal detectors.

Where will this money come from? If President George W. Bush went on television tonight and called for a surtax to finance mass-transit security—the APTA proposal would cost about $20 per American—does anyone doubt it would pass in a flash? This isn’t likely to happen, however.

Another route, of course, is to borrow more money from the Chinese.

Then there is a third way: Recognize that the homeland-security budget and the military budget are both parts of a broader “national security” budget—and devise a way for Congress and the executive branch to examine the two parts together, setting priorities and weighing possible trade-offs.

For instance, the FY 2006 military budget includes $3.7 billion to buy 24 F-22 stealth fighter aircraft. Every time I have proposed slashing this program in Slate, someone writes in to say that these planes might be needed if China builds up its air force over the next 10 years or so. Fine. The thing is, al-Qaida has the ability to blow up dozens of passenger trains now. Would it be a big sacrifice to cut the F-22 by, say, half this year and devote the $1.85 billion savings to dealing with the immediate threat? Similar points could be made about the $2.8 billion for 32 F/A-18 aircraft, the $1.6 billion for a Virginia-class submarine, $936 million for upgrades on the Trident-submarine-launched ballistic missiles—and let us not forget the $10.7 billion for missile defense, another form of homeland security, except that it involves a technology that doesn’t remotely work and a threat that doesn’t yet exist.

Maybe these are bad examples. (Pick your own.) Maybe Congress would keep all these weapons systems going at full force, at the expense of transit security, even if faced with the choice. The point is, right now, there is no systematic way even to put the choice on the table.

The House and Senate Armed Services Committees made a stab at this tactic in November 2002, attaching an amendment to that year’s military budget that gave Bush authority to take $814 million from the missile-defense program (at the time, a little over 10 percent of the program), transfer it to the Department of Homeland Security, and spend it however he pleased. The president turned down the offer. (The committees would have had no power to transfer the money themselves; other committees supervised the DHS.)

There is a precedent of sorts for this reform. In the 1970s, Congress created the House and Senate Budget Committees and a think tank, the Congressional Budget Office, to go with them. The intent was precisely to provide a way for lawmakers to look at specific bills in the context of the entire budget. The Vietnam War was grinding to an end. Congress anticipated a “peace dividend” and wanted to be able to see—and show—how many extra food stamps could be purchased for the price of a bomber. Things didn’t work out that way. The chairmen of the armed services committees resisted incursions from these ambitious new panels. Budget deficits were also emerging as an issue, and the budget committees found their niche in setting overall budget resolutions—not in micromanaging the programs within.

Still, the concept may be more plausible if the goal is to set priorities not for the entire federal budget but simply for that part of it concerning security, homeland and otherwise.

Some may say that protecting mass transit is not worth much money. If terrorists blow up a plane, everyone on board dies along with maybe hundreds or thousands more on the ground below. On the other hand, from 1998-2003, there were 181 terrorist attacks on trains and rail-related targets, killing a total of 431 people—on average, fewer than three deaths per incident. Some might also quote the 9/11 commission’s observation: “Surface transportation systems such as railroads and mass transit remain hard to protect because they are so accessible and extensive.”

The commission’s report also recommended that homeland security spending “should be based strictly on an assessment of risks and vulnerabilities.” Trains are highly vulnerable, but—given the relatively small number of fatalities—the risk seems lower. Even the attacks today, on four sites in London, killed about 40 people—horrific, but far fewer than the deaths from the downing of a single airplane.

Then again, a body count is a faulty measure of consequences. Whether the toll had been 40 or 400, the damage—socially, economically, psychologically, and to the fabric of everyday life—has been, and will be, immense. Ask Londoners how much they would have spent in an effort to prevent the attacks; they would probably tell you, “A lot.” How much are Americans willing to spend—how many stealth fighters are they willing to postpone—before the bombs explode again here?