NATIONAL PARKS:

Congress, police debate Statue of Liberty visitor experience

Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.), who made it a personal crusade to reopen the Statue of Liberty after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, said yesterday that he supports a new security screening plan that would change the way visitors experience the national park.

Weiner said a National Park Service's proposal to eliminate long ferry lines by moving tourist screening to Ellis Island isn't ideal, but it's the best option available.

"The status quo is horrible. It's a terrible visitor experience," said Weiner, who maintains the white tents at Battery Park that currently house a visitor screening facility run by the Park Police are an eyesore and uninviting for tourists.

Weiner has tried for years to get the Park Service to find a more permanent alternative. As far back as 2003 he tried to get the city government to boot the Park Service off the Battery Park location in order to force them to find a better alternative.

"Given the available choices, I think the Ellis Island alternative makes the most sense," he said

The current plan would eliminate screening facilities at Battery Park and Liberty Park in New Jersey and allow tourist to board ferries that would take them to Ellis Island where security checks would then take place in a more permanent structure. Visitors would still continue to be screened again at Liberty Island before going into the Statue of Liberty.

The plan has the support of the private cruise company that operates the tourist ferries and was set to be announced this week during Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's visit to New York. But the announcement was put on hold when it became clear that not all local security entities were on board with the proposal.

According to one source with knowledge of the security situation, the New York Police Department was brought into the planning process late and expressed concerns about the plan "that should have been discussed earlier on."

"The NYPD is prickly about anything that has to do with law enforcement that they are not consulted on," Weiner acknowledged.

Meanwhile, the head of the Park Police union yesterday spoke out against the elimination of the Battery Park and Liberty Park screening locations.

"If there is an option that screens individuals farther away from the area of interest, in this case the Statue of Liberty, we would definitely prefer that option not only for the public but also for the officers we represent," said Officer Ian Glick, the chairman of the Park Police labor committee that represents approximately 500 officers.

Glick said that in all the discussions of what makes for a good visitor experience, those who are making the decisions should understand that "the foundation of the visitor experience is a secure experience and that starts with screening."

"Any assessment of the security plans should be thorough and should be conducted by qualified parties," he said.

A spokeswoman for the Department of the Interior said yesterday that Salazar is working with independent New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg's office as well as the NYPD to look at opportunities to improve the management of the federal parks in New York.

Weiner said yesterday that the ideal option for visitors coming from New York would be to move the screening facility into Pier A, a city-owned tract just north of the current screening location.

Pier A "is a piece of real estate not being particularly well-used now. ... You could make it like a visitor center and do it that way. It's sure better than having it standing on the sidewalk in Battery Park," he said.

But Weiner said that option has been bogged down for years for various legal reasons.

Park Police Chief Teresa Chambers said yesterday that there are pros and cons to any proposal.

"We certainly want it to be an inviting place and yet a secure place," said Chambers, who, along with Park Service officials traveled to New York to meet with NYPD's deputy commissioner for counterterrorism, Richard Daddario, on Monday. "We're looking forward to working with the NYPD and the secretary's office to make it happen."

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