WASHINGTON, Oct. 17 (UPI) -- The Senate Commerce and Science Committee on Wednesday unanimously approved a bill devoting $1.77 billion to rail security and safety over the next two years, but not before members promised extensive debate before the full Senate.
Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., committee chairman, together with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., ranking minority member, submitted the Rail Security Act of 2001 in response to issues raised during the Senate's passage of the Aviation Security Act.
"Sen. McCain and I, with input from the administration, have drafted a bill that addresses the immediate safety and security needs of Amtrak," Hollings said in a prepared statement. "It also clarifies that the Secretary of Transportation has the authority he needs to address not just railroad safety, but also security."
The bill would spend $515 million to help cover Amtrak's extra costs since Sept. 11, as well as purchasing surveillance equipment and hiring and training additional police and canine officers. At least half of those funds would go to facilities outside the Boston-Washington corridor, Hollings said in his statement.
The bulk of the spending, $998 million, would go toward updating the ventilation, fire safety and personal safety aspects of railroad tunnels in New York City, Baltimore and Washington. The remaining $254 million would make changes to New York's Penn Station to improve access for public safety agencies, and renovate major railroad bridges in Connecticut.
The Secretary of Transportation would have to approve individual efforts in each area, and the department's inspector general would ensure the funds were spent on security projects and not as part of Amtrak's general fund. The bill also would allow railroad police to enforce laws on other railroads' property, and require the secretary to conduct an overall railroad security review within six months.
Hollings and McCain asked the committee to withhold any amendments to ensure the bill reaches the Senate floor quickly. McCain said he would oppose any proposals to increase Amtrak's long-term funding, no matter when the amendments were submitted.
The members complied, approving the bill as-is on a 22-0 vote, but not before detailing several changes they would submit when the full chamber took up the matter.
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson, R-Texas., wanted to ensure an opportunity to try and add $241 million to the bill for backlogged repairs on passenger railcars, to increase both safety and provide additional capacity for increased ridership. Hollings said such an opportunity would be there, but the repair issue would be addressed anyway in an omnibus transportation bill.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said her floor amendments would include a proposal for $1.50 "safety fees" on Amtrak tickets. This fee would allow the railway to double its security officers and begin screening baggage, she said.
Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, and Sen. John Breaux, R-La., both spoke of the integral role such checks of luggage and passengers would play in any security increase, with Snowe promising an amendment to require checks. Sen. John Rockefeller, D-W.V., was one of several committee members to mention the need to deal with train shipments of hazardous materials.
Before acting on the bill, the committee approved by unanimous consent two nominees for senior administration science and technology posts.
President George W. Bush nominated John Marburger III, currently in charge of the Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island, to direct the Office of Science and Technology Policy, which directly advises the president on those matters. Bush tapped Phillip Bond, a Hewlett-Packard executive, to be the Commerce Department's Undersecretary for Technology.
The nominations now move to the full Senate for confirmation, where little or no opposition is expected.