Transportation Officials, Riders Take Issue with Chertoff's Comments

WASHINGTON -- In the city that's home to the federal government, there's a frosty reception for the idea that protecting mass transit is primarily up to the locals. One day after Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff made that pronouncement, some transit and government officials fought back Friday.

"Fully half of the peak period users of the Metro system are federal employees. Is he saying to his own people, 'good luck?'" asked Metro Board Chairman Dana Kauffman, who called Chertoff's comments "very disconcerting."

"The federal government lives and works here. And we need to get them to and from work. And our transportation systems successfully do that," said Kala Quintana of the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission (NVTC), which co-owns Virginia Railway Express, and appoints four members to the Metro Board.

"We challenge them to find any evacuation plan that doesn't include public transit," Quintana said.

Chertoff raised eyebrows Thursday when he said the feds have their priorities, and that an airplane could kill 3,000 people while "a bomb in a subway car may kill 30 people."

Metro has an average daily ridership of 700,000 on the subways and 500,000 on the buses. VRE averages 15,000 on the two commuter rail lines it runs between the Virginia suburbs and Washington.

"There needs to be a partnership and we have to expect state and local governments to do their part in transportation, but having said that, there is definitely a need for the federal government to make an additional investment," said District of Columbia Mayor Anthony A. Williams. He called Metro an example of a federal, state and local partnership that has worked very well.

"The infrastructure, when it comes to security, ought to be the same kind of partnership," Williams said. He favors the federal government taking majority responsibility for protecting the system, with state and local agencies making a contribution.

NVTC agrees that all interested parties have to pitch in, but warns localities are being pressed.

"We're already strapped to the limit on our transportation funding," Quintana said.

So if Chertoff is good to his word, what will Metro do?

"The best we can in the interest of our riders' safety. And what that means is more of a spot check than a consistent check. And that's not good enough," Kauffman said.

"After the fact largesse isn't going to help stave off the next crisis," Kauffman said. "I want to keep something from happening, rather than suddenly find the money available after people are killed."