The surest way for a mode of transportation to get a boost in federal funding is for it to suffer a terrorist attack, anywhere in the world. When coordinated bombings on the Madrid train system killed 191 people in March 2004, the U.S. Congress immediately created a $150 million grant program for transit and rail security. Now, in the aftermath of the recent attacks on the London subway system, lawmakers are pushing for more. Sen. Judd Gregg, Republican of New Hampshire, proposes an increase of $100 million. Other senators want more: New York Democrat Chuck Schumer talks of $200 million, Alabama Republican Richard Shelby has called for $1.2 billion, and New York Democrat Hillary Clinton wants $1.3 billion. Of course, all of those numbers pale in comparison with the $6 billion sought by William Millar, president of the American Public Transportation Association.
Advocates of such proposals often point to the gap between spending on aviation security and transit security, but that is the wrong way of looking at the problem. Since the number of possible attacks is unlimited, while the resources we can devote to preventing them are very limited, spending decisions should involve careful cost-benefit analysis. Not every preventive measure is worth funding, and the greatest risks must be addressed first and most intensively.
While members of Congress often overlook this common-sense principle, homeland-security secretary Michael Chertoff has made it the foundation of his department's philosophy. On July 14, he explained why he wouldn't change his transit-security policy based on a single event, telling a reporter: "The truth of the matter is that a fully loaded airplane with jet fuel, a commercial airliner, has the capacity to kill 3,000 people. A bomb in a subway car may kill 30 people. When you start to think about priorities, you are going to think about making sure you don't have a catastrophic thing first."
His comments drew sharp criticism, mainly from Senate Democrats representing metropolitan areas with mass-transit systems. They argue that such systems are vulnerable to terrorists, as demonstrated by the Madrid and London bombings. But all transportation systems have inherent weaknesses; if the justification for federal intervention were vulnerability, every mode of transportation would qualify, and we would quickly run out of funds.
The truth that most people ignore is that not all terrorist attacks have the same consequences. The September 11 attacks claimed close to 3,000 lives in New York City. In comparison, a successful attack on the Washington, D.C., subway might kill 60 people; and, at the other end of the spectrum, the detonation of a less-than-perfect one-kiloton nuclear bomb in lower Manhattan would--in the estimate of the Federation of American Scientists--kill at least 200,000 people.
A glance at these numbers makes it clear where our priorities should be--but federal priorities have a way of defying logic. In the last four years, the Department of Homeland Security has spent $250 million on transit security and $18 billion on aviation security, suggesting that these priorities have been ranked roughly as they should be. During the same period, however, total spending on nuclear-threat reduction by the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Energy, the Department of State, and the Department of Defense was just $4 billion, despite the fact that a nuclear bombing would be worse by several orders of magnitude than even the worst September 11-style attack.