Ports to Compete with Public Transit under New Budget Proposal

CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) - President Bush's budget proposal would force the Port of Charleston to compete for security money against public transportation agencies.

The proposal eliminates the standalone Port Security Grant Program and pools $600 million to handle bus, train, port and road system security. In Charleston, the change could mean the ports here would compete against the city's bus system for security and improvement cash.

``What the administration's recommendation would do is to take a grant program that helps fund projects that defend our borders and has clearly defined costs, and roll it into a nebulous new program that pits border security needs against domestic security programs,'' said Kurt Nagle, president of the American Association of Port Authorities.

That's a tough game to win, observers say.

"The old saying was, 'Freight doesn't vote,' " said Byron Miller, spokesman for the South Carolina State Ports Authority. "Our industry does not have a very good history of competing with passenger transit for infrastructure funding."

The State Ports Authority is analyzing the Bush proposal to see if it will help or hurt port security as they face competing with other, more visible security needs in the community.

The state agency has received about $8 million from the port security grant program since it began in 2002. In the past two years, the Ports Authority has spent almost $15 million on security, including $6 million through federal grants, the agency says.

Homeland security money helped cover part of the costs for improved lighting, and fencing at port terminals and a closed-circuit video surveillance system. Port security expenses have doubled to $4 million since Sept. 11, 2001.

The Bush proposal gives ports nationwide a shot at more money than they've typically vied for. In the past, Congress has given them up to $150 million a year for homeland security programs. That's more than a third of actual security expenses that top $400 million a year.

Ports are part of the nation's borders and will have to compete with areas that aren't on the front lines, Aaron Ellis, spokesman for the national port association said. "The border is the first line, and the ports are our borders.''

But federal laws also have forced public transportation agencies to tighten security. Bus system operators are seeking federal money for driver training, security cameras and communication systems to connect them to police during emergencies.

Last year, for instance, the Charleston Area Regional Transportation Authority applied for $500,000 in federal funds to pay for such upgrades, but its application was turned down. The authority plans to try again for federal aid, regardless of whether its field of competitors increases.

"The ports are going to get their money; I don't think there's any question about that,'' Howard Chapman, executive director of CARTA, said last week. ``But we have to be successful in what we do, too.''

The bus system operates around military, civilian and port sites, he said.