WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- Baltimore has come out a loser in this year's competition for federal port security funds.
Designated a second-tier port by the Department of Homeland Security, Baltimore will get $1.9 million, a cut of 60 percent from the current year, according to members of the Maryland congressional delegation and a Homeland Security official.
Baltimore ranked 33rd in the latest round of port grants, according to government figures to be made public today. All eight Tier I port areas, such as the New York/New Jersey port, which received $27.3 million, got much larger grants, as did most other Tier II port areas, such as Pittsburgh and Hampton Roads, Va., and several lower-risk Tier III ports, including San Juan, Puerto Rico, which received $4.7 million.
Ports have long been considered a prime target for terrorists, said Stephen Flynn, a security specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations. But nearly six years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the government lacks a national plan to ensure a minimum level of security at America's ports.
"If we look at the two key components of what terrorists are about," Flynn said, they want "mass casualties and mass disruptions. You can do both those things in most of our seaports."
By ranking ports largely according to the potential damage that would be caused by a terrorist strike, Washington intended to take politics out of the funding process. But that didn't stop Maryland politicians from criticizing this year's allocations.
Gov. Martin O'Malley called the total "appalling" and "demoralizing." Although Baltimore is the nearest deep-water port to Washington, he said, only about 6 percent of the cargo containers it processes are given any kind of inspection.
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Baltimore compared the $870 million he said the Department of Homeland Security had divided among the nation's 361 seaports through the end of 2006 with the $20 billion he said the Transportation Security Administration has dedicated to aviation security from 2004 through 2007, and said that security at the nation's shipping centers is not being funded adequately.
A Homeland Security official said yesterday that the main reason for the drop in funding to Baltimore was that two of the projects proposed by local agencies failed to win federal approval.
One was deemed to be outside the scope of the grant program, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Another was seen as unlikely to be effective at countering terrorist threats.
Robert P. Liscouski, a former assistant secretary for infrastructure protection at the department, said he understood that applications from several ports were weak or incomplete.
"The local officials are responsible for that," he said. "That's basically a missed opportunity on their part."
But Democratic Rep. John P. Sarbanes of Baltimore County said the administration is not funding homeland security projects "at the levels that would match the rhetoric . . . regardless of the back and forth on the nature of the applications."
The Maryland Port Administration had sought $4.1 million this year to assist with gate security, said spokesman Richard Scher. It will receive the $1.9 million. The Baltimore City Police Department applied for $1.3 million in federal port security funds for training and exercises, radios and satellite phones, underwater tactical equipment such as dive equipment and long-range acoustic devices such as sonar, but the request was rejected.
Baltimore's funding has fluctuated significantly over the years. Before winning $4.8 million last year, Baltimore received only $1 million in 2005. In total, the federal government has spent $18.5 million on port security for Baltimore since 2002, and the state has matched much of that money, spending a total of $11 million on public port facilities. The state plans to match 25 percent of today's grant award, said Scher.
This year, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said his top priorities for port security included improving local understanding of threats to port areas, minimizing the risk of a bombing such as the 2000 attack on the USS Cole in Yemen, expanding training, and implementing the federal port worker identification card program.
The identification card program became a high priority after last year's Dubai Ports World controversy revealed that there are few background checks for port workers, and that port facilities are easy to access. However, Baltimore's port and the hundreds of others across the country are still waiting for the Transportation Security Administration to roll out the long-delayed federal identification card system.
The Sun reported in 2005 that the port had several gate security problems, including alarms and cameras that didn't work and gaps in fences. Since then, the port has received funding for improvements, including a state-of-the-art camera system.
"We were able to address fencing in a previous port security grant round," said Scher, of the state port administration. "And we are in the final stages of implementing a $5.5 million video surveillance system. Hopefully, we will have the system up and live by the end of the year."
This year for the first time, the department ranked ports loosely into three tiers based on their significance to national security. Baltimore was assigned to the second tier.
A port's tier designation is based on past threats, its current vulnerabilities and the impact that an attack there would have on the nation. Though there is no current intelligence suggesting a threat to any specific port, the Homeland Security official said, that would also weigh heavily.
Baltimore competed with the 16 other second-tier ports for $40.2 million this year. The eight first-tier ports - including New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Houston - will share $120.7 million.
Chertoff this year said the tiered approach "puts the most money where the most risk [of an attack] is."
Michael Greenberger, director of the Center for Health and Homeland Security at the University of Maryland, said proximity to the nation's capital should put Baltimore in the top tier.
"The British figured out in 1812 that the way to get to Washington, D.C., is through the Chesapeake Bay," he said.
Grant awards for second-tier ports were determined by a two-stage review process, the Homeland Security official said.
First, a group of Coast Guard officials and port security experts made an in-depth evaluation of the merits of a specific port's application and scored it accordingly. Then, a national review panel examined the ratings of all of the port grant applications and assigned funding.
The emerging fight over port security grants reminds Greenberger of the debate last year over grants to cities. The New York and Washington areas lost 40 percent of their funding while smaller cities like Omaha and Louisville got big boosts.
"No one understands what the calculus is in making the grant decisions," he said.
Sun reporters Andrew Green, Sumathi Reddy and Meredith Cohn contributed to this article.