Rail-security bill slightly off track

Rail-security bill slightly off track

Congressional legislation to provide new security funding for railroads may be sidetracked in the House. Oppos-ition by Democrats who complain they were left out of its drafting makes it un-likely the $1.1 billion bill will pass be-fore Congress leaves for its August recess.

"We're starting to get squeezed in here a bit," said Rep. Jack Quinn, R-N.Y., chairman of the House railroads subcommittee and a lead sponsor of the bill, which was introduced June 17.

The legislation, known as the Protecting Railroads Against Enemy Efforts Through Modernization, Planning and Technology Act, or PREEMPT, would require the Transportation and Homeland Security departments to agree on a plan detailing each agency's responsibilities for railroad security. The agencies would be required to develop a nationwide rail-security plan that identifies the most important rail assets and infrastructure, their vulnerabilities and a contingency plan to keep railroads operating after a terrorist attack.

The bill also would authorize the Department of Transportation to award grants for rail-security technologies. Shippers, railroads, railcar owners, academic researchers and state and local governments would be eligible. Grants could be used for automated security inspection, inspection of bridges and tunnels and for making tank cars more secure. The largest chunks of grant money would be $20 million for development and deployment of communications-based train control systems and $20 million for developing bridge and tunnel inspection technologies.

The bill's sponsors hope to build on the concerns about rail security that erupted after the March attacks on passenger rail service in Madrid. Democrats are upset that all of the bill's sponsors are Republicans. "We are shut out," said Jim Berard, spokesman for the Transportation Committee's Democratic members. "This is a Republican-only initiative, I am told. I don't know if any Democrats have been invited to co-sponsor. I know no Democrats were invited to be part of the original sponsorship team or to help write it."

Quinn said he plans to secure Democratic co-sponsors. The Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is generally considered one of the most bipartisan committees on Capitol Hill. When the committee introduced its highway bill legislation late last year, the top Democrats shared the spotlight with the top Republicans. "That is unusual for this committee," Berard said. "We've always prided ourselves in being bipartisan."

One group that wasn't shut out was the railroad industry, which reportedly played a large role in writing the legislation. "What you find in this bill, the bulk of it, is written by the industry that understands the needs," said Rep. John Porter, R-Nev., one of the bill's co-sponsors.

Nancy Wilson, senior assistant vice president at the Association of American Railroads, said the bill will "provide the resources to the industry and to the government to advance the work that's already been done."

The Senate is considering similar rail-security legislation that also would require the administration to create a national rail-security plan that identifies the system's vulnerabilities.

The Senate Commerce Committee approved a bill sponsored by its chairman, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and the committee's ranking Democrat, Sen. Ernest Hollings of South Carolina, in May. That bill is stalled in the Senate, and a McCain spokeswoman said it is unclear whether it will get full Senate consideration this year. Both bills address both freight and passenger rail security, but the Senate version places more emphasis on passenger operations.