Traffic Patrick J. Leahy's special interest in the District of Columbia dates back to his time as a Georgetown University law student in the early 1960s.
He went home to Vermont to become the prosecuting attorney of its largest county. Then he returned to Washington as a Democratic senator and, in the abnormal course of events, became chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that oversees the city budget. As such, he played a major role in, among other things, easing the city's "right turn on red" traffic signal rules.
Though he's moved on to bigger things, his travails as a commuter from Fairfax County and as a host to countless confused constituents led him to get up on the Senate floor a while back and make some astringent and downright funny comments about local traffic.
He responded to Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who--as a successor to Leahy in the appropriations post--observed that "the synchronization of lights is a very important subject . . . I pledge to put that as a priority item. . . . "
Leahy wryly said he wished Specter "the best of luck . . . ."
Over time, Leahy said, "we periodically raised this problem" of synchronization, but without conclusive results.
"I once had a visitor who was riding into the District with me," Leahy related. "The visitor said: 'Pat, are the lights designed for the benefit of the pedestrians or for the benefit of the drivers?'
"I said, 'No.'
"That is pretty much the way it is. The synchronization of the lights is not designed either for the benefit of the drivers or the benefit of the pedestrians.
"I thought I would discover the secret of whom they were designed for when I went on the Intelligence Committee, but this is of such a high classification, none of us will ever be allowed to know for whose benefit they are designed.
"The city's directional signs are interesting . . . When somebody comes to the District of Columbia, everybody wants to go to the Washington Monument, but how many people ever do get a chance to see Spout Run in Arlington or have that on the top of their list?
" . . . When they follow the signs as now posted to the Washington Monument, they do end up in Spout Run . . . an extra benefit . . .
"They will eventually see the normal tourist sights. It might take them a couple of days longer . . . They might see Rock Creek Park when they wanted to see the Air and Space Museum. They might wind up in Pennsylvania when they thought they were heading down to the Tidal Basin . . . "
Reforms eventually come about, Leahy concluded, "but let us not rush them. This is a city full of tradition-- including impossible traffic conditions. The spontaneity and excitement of direction signs is part of that tradition. . . . ."