The House yesterday overwhelmingly rejected the latest costly plan to repair Union Station and complete the National Visitor Center there, thwarting what one opponent of the legislation called "the great train station robbery."
By a vote of 247 to 139, the House defeated a proposal to spend another $39 million -- $44 million already has been spent on the structure in the last 10 years -- to restore the train terminal to the main concourse, complete a partially constructed 1,400-space parking garage, relocate the vistors' center in less space and make critically needed structural repairs to the 70-year-old building.
The next attempt to complete the renovation of the building is likely to come in the Senate, where the visitors center -- conceived as a highlight of the 1976 Bicentennial -- is believed to face even greater opposition than it did in the House. A possible compromise, sources indicated, would be to authorize renovation of the train station and abandon plans for a vistors' center.
Rep. Elliott H. Leviatas (D-Ga.), chairman of the House Public Buildings and Grounds Subcommittee and sponsor of the defeated legislation, said the existing situation offers "an inadequate, incomplete facility" to a growing number of rail passengers. The terminal was relocated at the rear of the main building to make room for an elaborate display for tourists in the main concourse, but the work was halted three years ago because of mounting cost overruns.
Rep. Robert E. Bauman, (R-Md.), who dubbed the bill "the great train station robbery," during the debate, said "I realize something has to be done on this building on which all this money has been spent."
Rep. Norman Y. Mineta (D-Calif.), who was chairman of the subcommittee before Levitas, said "it (the bill) needs to be passed because we already have spent $45 million on it and the taxpayers have got very little but inconvenience on their investment," Mineta called the proposal "an acceptable solution to an intolerable situation."
House Public Works Chairman Harold T. (Bizz) Johnson (D-Cal.), said he recognized that "we already have asked for authorization three times in the last decade" for the facility "and each time was to have been the last."
But Johnson said the latest money request was needed to repair "one of the most beautiful buildings" in the Nation's Capital, which he said "is deteriorating."
Levitas added that it is "easy and enjoyable" for opponents to "engage in an orgy of condemnation" of the proposal. But he said the choice was between "a hole in the ground or a viable visitor center and railroad station."
Unless or until new legislation is approved, the crumbling, classic Roman structure may become, as Rep. John Ashbrook (R-Ohio) urged yesterday that it should, a symbol of where Congress drew "a water line" to which taxpayers could point and say "that's where we stopped" big federal spending programs.
The rejected legislation had the backing of the Carter administration and Amtrak, but it met with bipartisan opposition when House members, most of whom were absent during the debate, came to the floor to vote.
Democrats split nearly even on the issue, with 125 voting for it and 122 against it. Republicans were nearly unanimous in their opposition, with all but 14 of 130 voting in opposition.
Among local House members, Reps. Michael D. Barnes (D-Md.) and Joseph L. Fisher (D-Va.) voted for the legislation. Reps. Gladys Noon Spellman (D-Md.), Herbert E. Harris II (D-Va.), Beverly Byron (D-Md.) and Bauman voted against it.