February 9, 2005

Port officials concerned about security grants in Bush budget

By Toby Eckert
Copley News Service

WASHINGTON -- Port officials fear they could be left scrambling for scarce dollars by President Bush's proposal to eliminate a dedicated federal fund for seaport security and combine it with a larger counter-terrorism program.

The plan, contained in the president's budget proposal for fiscal year 2006, could pit seaports against mass transit, railroads, power plants and other "critical infrastructure" facilities, Kurt Nagle, president of the American Association of Port Authorities said Tuesday.

Noting that Congress passed a law in 2002 requiring port security enhancements that the Coast Guard estimated would cost $5.4 billion over 10 years, Nagle said, "We believe it's vitally important for the port security program to remain separate and identified."

In response to that law, the Department of Homeland Security has provided four rounds of grants to ports, including Los Angeles, totaling $565 million. But under the budget Bush proposed Monday, that program would be eliminated and ports would have to apply for funding from a broader Targeted Infrastructure Protection Program.

Administration officials said the move would centralize grant programs for transportation systems and other potential economic targets of terrorism, and allow them to base funding decisions on an analysis of what facilities face the greatest threat.

"Rather than providing arbitrary amounts for particular sectors, priorities and projects would be determined based on relative risk, vulnerability and need," a White House budget document said.

Acting Homeland Security Secretary James Loy called it "one-stop shopping."

"Risks and vulnerabilities need (to be) targeted, and that's where these dollars should go," he said.

The $600 million proposed for the fund would nearly double the grant funding allocated separately for ports, railroads, mass transit and trucking security this fiscal year, Loy added.

"The very likely scenario is that ports would get greater funding through this," a department spokesman said.

The concerns expressed by the port officials are part of their long-running effort to secure more federal funding for security following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. Terrorism experts have repeatedly warned that U.S. ports are vulnerable to a terrorist attack or the smuggling of terrorist cells and weapons into the country.

The biggest fear is that a terrorist group will use one of the millions of cargo containers that enter U.S. ports each year to conceal a nuclear, chemical or biological weapon. Officials from the Port of Los Angeles have lobbied Congress for a dedicated fund for port security, so far without success.

The grants provided by the Homeland Security Department have only covered about 16 percent of what the ports need to spend on security, including surveillance systems and weapons detection equipment, Nagle said.

"There was a significant effort (after Sept. 11) on the aviation side. We believe the marine side needs additional attention," he said.

White House budget documents indicated that, in addition to the security grants, Bush's spending plan calls for $2 billion for Coast Guard security programs and an expansion of the Container Security Initiative, which targets some U.S.-bound cargo for scrutiny before it leaves foreign ports.