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Lawmakers call for greater security funding and oversight for U.S. transit systems

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

America's rail and subway systems are struggling to rebound after ridership plummeted during the pandemic. Part of riders' hesitancy is tied to safety, as they see things like open drug use and, in some cities, rising assaults and robberies on public transit. And while rare, a recent mass shooting in New York City's subway saw 10 people wounded. Now some in Congress are calling for greater security funding and oversight for America's vulnerable transit systems. Here's NPR's Eric Westervelt.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: At a recent windswept rooftop press event, Janno Lieber, the CEO of New York City's Metropolitan Transportation Authority, praised the camera security system now in place in every subway station in North America's largest transit agency.

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JANNO LIEBER: The story of the cameras at the MTA is pretty amazing. We have gone up by, like, 60% in a few short years because we decided to make it a priority. Nobody sent us a pile of additional money to do it. We made it a priority.

WESTERVELT: But those pretty amazing security cameras at both the 36th Street and 25th Street stations failed to transmit footage back to MTA and NYPD headquarters during the recent mass shooting at a Brooklyn subway station. Officials blamed a faulty internet connection. The MTA insists the camera failure rate overall is tiny and that images from other cameras that worked helped catch the suspect. But the MTA's acting inspector general recently announced she's launched a probe, saying the camera failures raise questions. And members of Congress now want to know how federal money has been spent on security cameras, how often they're checked and maintained and more.

ERIC SWALWELL: I want every dollar that we spend or invest to be used to protect people. And so we want to make sure that if we fund it, it actually functions and the money goes to keeping people safe.

WESTERVELT: That's Representative Eric Swalwell, a California Democrat who sits on the Homeland Security Committee. He was one of the signers of a recent bipartisan letter demanding answers. Congress members wrote to the MTA - given the disturbing and continued rise of subway attacks this year, we write to urge you to be more transparent in how you use federal funding. The MTA, in fact, got about $50 million over the last two years from the Department of Homeland Security's Transit Security Grant Program. Representative Swalwell is calling for an increase in that grant program and greater accountability. The increase, if approved, he says, will help agencies add detection equipment, cameras and surveillance training to help harden America's rail, bus and ferry networks.

SWALWELL: We also have to make sure that people use the systems that we fund, and if they don't feel safe, then they're not going to use them. And I don't want this to entirely fall on local, stretched police departments.

WESTERVELT: The New York City shooting raises questions about how federal money is actually being spent by cities and counties. And the Biden administration's $1 trillion Bipartisan Infrastructure Jobs Act will see the largest infusion of money into American rail and mass transit in a generation. That welcomed funding, says Sean Jeans-Gail, needs to come with increased monitoring of spending in New York and everywhere, whether it's for upgrading rail infrastructure or security. Jeans-Gail is the head of government affairs at the Rail Passengers Association.

SEAN JEANS-GAIL: Given the exponential increase in money going towards intercity rail specifically but also transit, there will be a need for strong congressional oversight because, otherwise, a lot of this money could get frittered away.

WESTERVELT: With transit ridership still down, absolute crime numbers on most subway and rail systems are down, too. But when adjusted for ridership, crime in many transit systems, including Chicago, New York and Philadelphia, remain well above pre-pandemic figures. Still, overall, America's transit systems have proved mostly immune from larger attacks, such as mass shootings and terrorist strikes. But they remain vulnerable, and more cameras by themselves, some argue, are not a cure-all.

ABIGAIL SPANBERGER: There has to be a person behind the camera. There has to be someone watching it, and there needs to be somebody else able to respond in the event that there is a threat.

WESTERVELT: Congresswoman Abigail Spanberger is a former CIA officer. She says for any local security monitoring to be effective, it needs to be tied into robust human intelligence and a clear plan.

SPANBERGER: Frequently, when there's any sort of concern, people automatically go towards monitoring or go towards camera systems. But that requires humans. That requires monitoring. That requires people knowing what they're looking for. That's training, training, training, and training is expensive, expensive, expensive.

WESTERVELT: No one wants to add anything like the kind of security screenings at subways and trains that we see at airports, but critics have long said that the Federal Transportation Security Administration, or TSA, focuses too much on airports. The TSA does have roving specialized security teams with the dramatic sounding acronym VIPR, for Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response. A TSA official says VIPR teams conduct thousands of operations each year in transportation systems nationwide, but the official declined to provide any details of VIPR's size and work, citing sensitive security information. But multiple Government Accountability Office reports have questioned TSA's and VIPR's effectiveness. One report in 2018 found that the TSA's performance measures for VIPR failed to show the program's usefulness and how the teams actually contribute to the TSA's larger security mission.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.