Photo by bnilsen on Flickr.

Metro’s random bag searches have drawn opposition on a number of counts, including their cost and demand on police officers’ time. WMATA has continuously stated that a federal grant from the Transportation Security Administration pays for the program.

But will the searches continue when the TSA grant runs out, and how will they be paid for? New WMATA CEO Richard Sarles didn’t answer that question when I posed it to him last week.

Sarles has said he plans to continue the agency’s random bag searches at station entrances despite protests from many riders and civil liberties groups. During last week’s meeting, the WMATA Board made clear it has no intention of intervening in this decision.

That means opponents are left with two options. They can fight the searches in court on the basis that they violate riders’ liberties. Or, they can hope the agency will realize their ineffectiveness at deterring determined terrorists, or run out of grant money and eventually let the program expire.

Will the second one happen? I asked Sarles this week how long Metro expected that the $26 million TSA grant would sustain the random search program and whether he anticipates continuing the searches once the grant is expended.  If they do continue, I asked, how much will they cost and how does WMATA expect to absorb them into their budget?

His response was a non-answer:

Our security strategy includes varying the methods that we use, as unpredictability is a factor in protecting the system.  Another factor is being responsive to conditions as they change.  For those reasons, it would be inappropriate for me to speculate about what methods we might use years from now with or without grant support.

One of the most damning arguments against the bag searches, in my opinion, is that Metro is allocating its resources to a “security” function which has little or no other use.  Despite the fact that the actual swabbing of bags is being carried out by TSA personnel, the full operation of these checkpoints requires the time of several Metro Transit Police officers to stand around at tables outside the station entrances.

As Metro Transit Police’s assistant chief has admitted, the TSA grant under which the searches are purportedly funded simply stipulates that programs must increase visibility of security measures in the system.

Having anti-terror squads, or even random bag searches actually inside the faregates, on platforms and in trains could serve an equally effective terrorism deterrence function. It would also increase general public safety throughout the system at a time when riders are calling its and their safety into question.

While I have some concerns about the slow ebbing of passengers civil liberties the searches represent, I’m most vehemently opposed to them based on their gross ineffectiveness and the fact that the resources and personnel time they require to carry out could be put to much better use elsewhere in the system.

On numerous cases, Sarles, Transit Police Chief Michael Taborn, and other officials have dismissed concerns about the cost of and allocation of resources to the agency’s new random bag searches. Questions have been deflected by the simple answer that the measures are paid for by a TSA grant from the federal government.

Yet, if Sarles’ and Taborn’s vehement defense of the searches as effective is to be taken seriously, then they surely won’t let them end when the TSA grant is spent, right?  That is a big concern, particularly considering that with a $26 million grant, they must not be cheap.

There are reasons to oppose the program even if Metro weren’t spending a dime of its scarce resources on them. But if this program continues without TSA money in the future, while we face the continual threat of service cuts and fare increases, we should be severely disappointed.