Blame it on the Bicentennial. Or maybe it's just the bureaucracy again. Certainly it's the System. In any event, it's a disgrace. Let's call this one "The Station Dimly Seen." "End of the Line" would do just as well. Your station. Your line. You pay.
After almost three-quarters of a century of dreaming and foot-dragging, a generation of study and planning, years of labor, loss of lives, billiosn expended, foresight, frustration and daring, Washington is getting what may be the world's best mass transit system. In a few days the new subway system spreads beyond its present limited bounds, burrows under the Potomac River, and connects the city with its suburban Virginia neighbors in Arlington and Alexandria.
It's splendid, worth all the effort and expense. It is sure to enhance Washington as a great world capital. Already it is transforming the city and its environs - reviving old sections, spawning new growth and laying to rest some of the canards about Crime Capital, U.S.A.
While the subway was being built fearsome stories were legion. It would become the city's subterranean center of violence; its gleaming new cars and stations would be infected by the spread of graffiti that plagues the New York City system.
Much of this stemmed from racism. Washington, after all, is the nation's largest predominantly black city. Now, after more than a year of operation, none of those fears has materialized. The subway not only is safe; it's a model of cleanliness. No graffiti. There are important reasons for this, civic pride and maturity among them, but this is not the place for a sociological treatise on the city. Just say it works.
It was with considerable expectation, then, that I took a trial run from downtown to the new end of the line at National Airport, a place I have to frequent all too often. Smooth, swift, scenic. The train pops above ground alongside Arlington Cemetery, offering views of the memorials on both sides of the river, ducks underground for the Pentagon, and finally emerges in sunlight at the airport.
The station sits, in majestic solitude, high over a parking lot, suspended by concrete piers. From the platform you can see the Capitol and Monument far off in the distance, and somewhere, shimmering in the summer haze, you can spot your ultimate destination - the Main Terminal.
Oh, say, can you see? Not very clearly.
Getting to the Terminal is simple. All it takes is patience, nerve - and endurance. You descend to the ground via elevator, wait for a yet-to-be-installed traffic light, make your way across lanes of traffic, thread though a large parking lot on the other side. After walking 425 feet you're at the North Terminal. Another 800-foot trek and you finally arrive at the Main Terminal. That's where most travelers do most of their air business.
There's an alternative. Wait for a shuttle bus, supposed to arrive every five or eight minutes. Once aboard you head, not toward the Main Terminal, but in the opposite direction. You've got to ride all the way around the airport to reach the Terminal. The road traffic pattern, you see, has been changed recently. Now, it's all one-way. All the wrong way for the transit rider, naturally.
But take solace. Help is on the way. The Federal Aviation Administration, whose responsibility it is to get you from the subway station to the air terminal, is now in the process of negotiating a contract. The selected firm is supposed to come up with some sort of automataed design facility. Eventually the subway riders will be moved from the platform in the air and deposited, over the highway and parking lot, at the North Terminal. You're on your own to the Main Terminal.
That system, whatever it finally turns out to be, won't be ready for at least two years. The FAA has known the train station would be loaded where it now sits for four years. All that time the subway has been inching toward the airport at a cost of more than a million dollars a day.
How all this happened, in its entirety, is too complicated a tale for this space. But, briefly: The FAA, properly, wanted the subway station at the airport. It urged digging underground, to come as close as possible to the terminal. The transit authority, weighing its problems and money available, determined that was too expensive there. And, the FAA says, the transit authority had another motive: it had its eye on the Bicentenial; it was important for the station to be opened by 1976 (Of course, it wasn't.)
Once the decision was made for an aerial station, the platform had to be placed on a straight line . . . the highway curves around the Main Terminal . . . you can't stop on a curve, so . . . back, back, back the station went. All this was back in '73. The FAA then waited to figure out how to get the passengers from station to terminal. All of National Airport might be moved around, you see, or abolished, or the North Terminal torn up and rebuilt. Who knows? A master plan was on its way. (It still hasn't arrived.) So, limbo . . .
There's another way to get to the airport. Be a VIP.
Nestled up to the very doors of the Main Terminal rests another parking lot, the closet of all to the airport. A small sign simply proclaims:
Supreme Court Justice
Members of Congress
Unauthorized Cars Will be Towed away
The lot accomodates 112 vehicles. No charge. Starting in 1973 the FAA asked for, and began receiving, congressional money to provide private guards to patrol that public, but private, lot. In '73, a total of $11,270 was appropriated. In '74, it was $28,680. In '75, it rose to $44,575. In '76, it jumped to $43,540. This year, the private guards cost us $56,650.
No one seems to be able to explain exactly how that parking lot came to begin.
In searching the records, it appears that special lot has been there as long as the airport. National opened 36 years ago this month. The VIP lot just happened. Down through the decades, airport manager after airport manager kept supporting it.
Wonder of wonders, there seems to have been no pressure from Congress to dispense with it.
Back in the bawdy, and corrupt, Gilded Age of the 19th century, a keen-eyed observer commented on Washington's streetcar system. It was, he declared, the most reasonable in the United States."I know of no other place where you can get about more easily," he said.
What struck him most, though, was the democracy of the system. For all of Washington's faults, the mighty and the lowly kept in constant contact. As he noted . . .
"The greatest of the great ride in streetcars here. It is not unusual to find yourself wedged in between a senator whose oratory brings thousands out to hear him, and a general whose deeds will live in history . . . Today your companion may be a noted lawyer, tomorrow you may hobnob and chat, if you will, with a member of the President's Cabinet. I rode home from the Capitol last night in a car in which there were a half dozen Justices of the Supreme Court. Off the bench, they are as jolly a lot of fellows as you could met . . ."
Nearly a century later, progress, has been made. Now the public, which always pays, expects second-class treatment.It's the public's servants who are the privileged. They get taken to from gate while we wearily trudge in from the back.