WASHINGTON -- The House last week approved spending $7.3 billion over four years to bolster rail and public transit security, but the effort could be derailed over politics.
The White House has threatened to veto the bill, which Connecticut lawmakers supported because it would provide security funding for carriers such as Metro-North Railroad.
Among the administration's objections is a plan to split control of the grants between the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Transportation.
"Creating a separate grant program that divides responsibility between two executive departments sets up an unnecessarily complicated administrative process and creates confusion among stakeholders as to which department is responsible for transportation security," said the Office of Management and Budget in a statement of administrative policy.
The OMB also complained that the grants would be distributed to private transportation carriers rather than to transit authorities, as is now the practice.
New York Rep. Peter King, the ranking Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee, voiced opposition to the provision, telling New York City newspapers that he feared having bus and train carriers set security priorities rather than the police.
New York City provides nearly 2,700 officers to patrol trains and buses but the police department would not be able to apply directly for the anti-terror grants.
Rep. Christopher Shays, R-4, also opposed the provision, although he ultimately voted for the bill.
"It seems to me that transit security funding should be streamlined -- distributed by DHS through a risk-based system and going directly to those who provide security. It simply does not make sense to require the police to jump through hoops for reimbursement," Shays said.
The House bill, which was approved 299-124 last week, must be reconciled with a substantially different version that the Senate included last month in legislation aimed at carrying out the recommendations of the Sept. 11 Commission.
The Senate version would provide $3.55 billion over three years -- distributed on the basis of risk to public transit systems. The grants would be used to improve protection against terrorist attacks and to mitigate the damage from an attack. The Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee had unanimously approved the proposal in February. In March, the proposal was wrapped into the Sept. 11 legislation.
"We need to move swiftly now to reconcile the two measures and get these critically important resources to our public transit systems," said Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., chairman of the Senate Banking Committee. "Each and every day, millions of Americans step onto buses and trains to go to work, school and other destinations, and they deserve better protection. We must make transit a top priority when it comes to keeping our citizens safe."
Dodd, who will be among the lawmakers hammering out a final version of the bill, expects to fight in favor of keeping the grants with the transit authorities.
"Sen. Dodd strongly supports providing the transit agencies and first responders who serve those agencies with the resources they need to more effectively keep the millions of Americans who use public transit safe and secure," said his spokeswoman, Colleen Flanagan.
The grant provision was inserted into the House bill at the last moment to settle a turf battle between House Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., and House Transportation Committee Chairman James Oberstar, D-Minn.
The two chairmen agreed to give the Department of Homeland Security authority to set the criteria for the grants, but authorize the Department of Transportation to give the money out.
Despite some criticism over the details, Connecticut lawmakers fully back the proposal to beef up mass transit security.
Metro-North Railroad's New Haven Line is one of the busiest commuter lines in North America, carrying more than 115,000 daily commuters last year, according to the state Department of Transportation.
The five-member House delegation voted in favor of the bill.
"Is this legislation perfect? No, but it moves us in the direction we need to go by developing a strategy and directing vital funding and resources toward an area in our nation's homeland security that has long been neglected," said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3. "The bottom line is that because of this legislation more dollars will be directed to Connecticut, improving the state's ability to better protect our mass transportation systems."
New York Rep. Nita Lowey said the legislation is "the first step" in closing an enormous gap between federal spending on aviation security and mass-transit security.
"As we saw in the uncovered plot to bomb the Herald Square subway station in New York City, as well as the horrific attacks in Madrid, London and Mumbai, terrorists are targeting mass transit systems, and we must do what it takes to protect and secure our transportation networks," she said. "This bill, for the first time, authorizes dedicated risk-based funding for the security of railroad carriers, public transportation systems, and over-the-road bus systems."
Lowey, a Democrat, said the bill also provides critical funding for fire and line-safety improvements in Amtrak tunnels in the Northeast corridor.
"Every day, thousands of my constituents join more than 7 million riders traveling on Metropolitan Transit Authority trains and buses throughout the New York metro area. They expect and deserve to know that the federal government is just as committed to rail security as it is to other homeland security priorities," she said.
The White House has also issued a veto threat over whistleblower language in the bill that it says would allow individual employees with grievances to disclose classified information.
"Such an independent, uncoordinated decision to disclose classified information could work to jeopardize the rail and transportation security that this legislation seeks to strengthen," OMB wrote.