A congressional hearing yesterday on homeland security in the capital region turned into a barrage of complaints from House members upset over authorities' handling of local traffic problems, with one representative threatening to "federalize" traffic management around Washington.
Several House members from Maryland and Virginia grilled federal and local officials about their performance during recent incidents that disrupted commuter traffic -- including last month's standoff with a farmer who drove his tractor onto the Mall and an accident Wednesday morning on the 14th Street bridge.
Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, which oversees the District and federal operations, suggested that authorities were too timid when they let North Carolina farmer Dwight W. Watson stay on the Mall for 47 hours. Watson, who said he had explosives with him, eventually surrendered to police, and no explosives were found.
"One guy in a tractor held up three rush hours. . . . What can a terrorist do?" said Davis, who also complained about the handling of more-routine traffic tie-ups, saying such snarls have delayed meetings on Capitol Hill and impaired the work of Congress.
"For the money we're spending, if the local leadership can't do it, maybe we've got to federalize some team who can," Davis said. He said he has called for a General Accounting Office study of how Maryland, Virginia and the District plan to spend $342 million in federal homeland security grants.
Outbursts from Davis and others dominated much of the hearing, during which the region's top political and law enforcement officials were to give a progress report on emergency preparedness in and around Washington 19 months after the September 2001 terrorist attacks.
Among those on hand to provide updates were Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner (D), D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) and a representative of Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), as well as the heads of the D.C. police, the U.S. Park Police, the Washington field office of the FBI and the Metro transit system.
House members kept turning the conversation back to the tractor episode and other recent traffic problems. In addition to Davis, Reps. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) and James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.) strongly criticized local authorities. Reps. Jo Ann S. Davis (R-Va.), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and C.A. Dutch Ruppersburger (D-Md.) also voiced concern about the traffic issue.
U.S. Park Police Chief Teresa C. Chambers, whose agency took the lead in handling the tractor situation, said the Park Police, the FBI and others were reviewing the incident to see what lessons could be learned. But Chambers stressed that if Watson had detonated a truck full of explosives, he could have killed people as far away as 1,500 feet.
"There will be things we could do differently. I don't know what they will be at this point," Chambers said. "While I understand the frustration. . . . I was more concerned with public safety. I did not want any injury or death to passersby."
Chambers said Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton asked the Justice and Homeland Security departments March 21 for an independent assessment of security on the Mall and in areas near the White House patrolled by Park Police. Norton asked for an oral report within 10 days, and a spokesman said she is still waiting for a response.
D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey, like Chambers, challenged the idea that police should have been more aggressive during the tractor stand-off. "I don't believe in killing people to clear up traffic problems," Ramsey told Davis's panel.
Yesterday's sometimes testy dialogue, which one federal official later called "congressional road rage," capped months of growing frustration among lawmakers over recurring accident-related traffic backups.
Tempers were hot in part because of an incident on the inbound 14th Street bridge during Wednesday's morning rush-hour. Moran complained that traffic on the bridge, which is under the jurisdiction of D.C. police, was tied up for hours because of a "fender bender." Wolf said he received a complaint from a House member who lives in Stafford County and said it took him from 5:32 to 8:52 a.m. to get to work. Davis and Ruppersburger said their commutes were also delayed.
Ramsey corrected Moran, saying Wednesday's 7 a.m. accident involved five cars -- three of which needed to be towed -- and injured a pregnant woman, who needed an ambulance. Ramsey said the incident closed one of four lanes and was cleared by 8:15 a.m. "It doesn't take much to tie up traffic here," Ramsey said.
In a letter to Virginia officials in December, Wolf mentioned a bus breakdown Oct. 29 on the George Washington Memorial Parkway that prevented him from attending a dinner in Tysons Corner, and an accident Dec. 16 on the 14th Street bridge that stalled traffic on Interstates 95 and 66 and the parkway. Yesterday, he urged Warner and Williams to work together to shorten accident response times and the time needed to clear major arteries. District officials said they will request federal funds for additional tow trucks and cranes to be positioned near bridges.
As for Davis's threat to "federalize" traffic management, Williams spokesman Tony Bullock said later that the federal government has caused much of the gridlock in downtown Washington, citing the U.S. Secret Service's decision to close Pennsylvania Avenue and E Streets NW around the White House. He also pointed out that a federal agency, the Park Police, was in charge of the standoff with the farmer.
"As far as we're concerned, the federal government already owns the traffic problem of the city. They contribute mightily to these ongoing challenges," Bullock said. He added, "Creating more government is not going to solve this problem."