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Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2006 | San Diego’s ports and mass transit systems have been placed on the bottom tiers of the Department of Homeland Security’s risk assessment rankings and subsequently received less funding for defense measures as they did in the past.
The Unified Port of San Diego will get roughly $140,000, a sizable reduction from the nearly $6.5 million it received for security upgrades last year. The Metropolitan Transit Authority, which oversees San Diego’s trolley and bus systems, will get more than $1 million to improve its security measures. That’s about $500,000 less than the agency received last year and more than $300,000 less than officials requested.
The decrease in the port’s funding can be partially attributed to the fact that officials asked for considerably less money this year because of a new rule requiring local agencies to match 25 percent of the federal grant. Also, over the long haul, officials said the port has succeeded in securing more homeland security dollars than larger U.S. ports since the program began in 2002.
However, it’s where San Diego ended up on a national risk assessment of other port cities and transit systems that left many bewildered and upset. The city’s port found itself at the bottom of the risk list alongside such cities as Plaquemines, La., and Port St. Joe, Fla.
For the first time since the program’s inception in 2002, the Department of Homeland Security divided the nation’s ports into different tiers according to their perceived risk. San Diego’s port ranked amongst the lowest risk cities, in the fourth tier.
Of the 28 bottom-tier ports that received funding, only three – Bridgeport, Conn., Port Manatee, Fla., and the Duluth, Minn. and Superior, Wis. regional ports – received less money than San Diego.
“Of course we’re disappointed,” said Port Commission Chairman Robert “Rocky” Spane. “I’m not sure we understand why this ranking occurred.”
Congresswoman Susan Davis chastised the Department of Homeland Security in a statement released Tuesday.
“After recent reports of an increasing threat of terrorism, the Department of Homeland Security offers up a pittance for San Diego port security,” Davis said. “It is difficult to comprehend how the Department of Homeland Security can reach the conclusion that San Diego deserves such a dramatic decrease in port security funding.”
In an interview, George Foresman, the Department of Homeland Security’s secretary for preparedness, said a port’s risk is based on a combination of known threats, vulnerability and the consequences of a successful attack. He said a port’s regular traffic and geography, as well as the potential impact of an attack to national security and the national economy, are also taken into consideration when determining risk.
The top tier ports were Houston, Los Angeles/Long Beach, and New York/New Jersey. The second tier was comprised of Baton Rouge, La., Beaumont, Texas, Chicago and Seattle.
Foresman said the amount of funding San Diego received wasn’t based on its ranking but on proposed projects submitted by port officials. He said the port competed against the 77 other cities in its tier for funding.
Pointing to dozens of port cities that received no grant funding, Foresman said the port’s application was consistent with national and local security strategies. The port, he said, was “doing a good job of managing San Diego’s security costs and risks.”
The port initially requested $889,000 to purchase a mobile command van, satellite phones, laptops and equipment to detect underwater explosive devices, a port spokeswoman said. The port had also applied for funds to install a fiber optic communications system linking the port with the Coast Guard, Navy and other agencies around the bay.
Although this year’s grant is meager compared to previous years, Spane and Foresman are both quick to point out that San Diego’s port has received more than $14 million from the Department of Homeland Security since 2002.
That’s the second-highest funding total among cities in the fourth tier, behind Miami. It also tops the total amount spent on Chicago, a second-tier city.
“This is not the world’s greatest news but it is not a death spiral either,” Spane said.
Foresman said it was difficult to quantify how San Diego’s military presence impacted its ranking or how much money the port received.
“There are two ways to look at military facilities,” he said, “either as an attractive target or a foreboding defensive mechanism.”
Spane, a retired vice admiral, hinted it may be the latter.
“There’s an argument that says we have the Navy here and the Navy has a whole bunch of money in port security so there may be more security capability here than the public knows,” Spane said.
Despite a drastic reduction in funding, San Diego fared better than several other California port cities. Oakland, San Francisco and Stockton all failed to secure homeland security grants, which prompted Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to say in a statement that those port cities – among the busiest in the nation – “were shortchanged.”
The governor’s statement didn’t mention San Diego. He called on Congress to “pass legislation this year that will require the Department of Homeland Security to allocate funds based on risk and need.”
Port protection has been a hot button issue in Congress this year. Several legislators, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein, have called on the Department of Homeland Security to consider risk when granting funds rather than giving them out according to arbitrary guidelines meant to level the playing field for smaller ports.
For the first time this year, the Department of Homeland Security also ranked transit system in the second of a two tier structure, placing San Diego’s amongst the least likely in the nation to face terrorist attack.
William Burke, the director of transit security for MTS, said his contacts at the Department of Homeland Security were surprised that San Diego’s transit system wasn’t ranked in the first tier.
In July, the top-tier agencies were awarded lump sums of money and then allowed to develop projects, Burke said. The second-tier projects were given three weeks to submit proposals which were then judged against one another. That has forced regional agencies to become competitors for funding rather than collaborators, Burke said.
Rob Schupp, a spokesman for MTS, said the department’s rankings were based on ridership and the number of subterranean and underwater tunnels in each city.
Burke said he was pleased with the grants despite getting less than last year and less than he asked for.
Last year MTS received $1.2 million after dividing a larger sum with the North County Transit District, which operates the Coaster. This year the agency received $563,000 after requesting $998,000 for rail security.
Burke said the proposed projects involved adding security cameras to trolley stations at Old Town, San Diego Sate University, 12th Street and Imperial Avenue and downtown’s America Plaza.
MTS’s initial request for $682,000 to add security cameras on buses and strengthen security measures at its garages was granted and increased by $500, Burke said.
Correction: A previous version of this story erroneously stated that MTS requested $998,000 for buses and that it requested and received $563,000 for rail security. We regret the error.