It was a proud and patriotic afternoon on the floor of the United States House of Representatives 13 years ago when the plan was announced to "save" Washington's Union Station.The plan evoked the same pious intonations as would a resolution extolling wholesome food or loving mothers. Rep. Kenneth J. Gray, his boyish exuberance projecting to the House gallery, was happiest of all, for he was promising what all politicians love to promise: Something for nothing.
"We are pleased to announce to the House that the proposal we bring to you today will not require one cent of taxpayers' money in the renovation of Union Station . . .," said the Democratic congressman from southern Illinois.
When he finished, his colleagues shoveled superlatives. "Excellent, eloquent and compelling," said Rep. Jim Wright (D-Tex.), who since has become House majority leader. "I think it is one of the greatest things that has been proposed. I want also to say that this program is a tribute to the work, the earnest perspicacity, the foresight, and the determination of the gentleman from Illinois, and when it is built, it will be a monument to Mr. Gray and to his dedication to his country."
The plan that Gray promised on Nov. 27, 1967, to turn Union Station into the National Visitor Center was neither perspicacious nor farseeing. The plan was a hodgepodge of wishful thinking, outright deception and bad judgment. It has unfolded as an almost unparalleled example of congressional bungling. For what was supposed to save Union Station without costing "one cent of taxpayers' money," Congress has spent or committed itself to spend more than $117 million. Those millions have been spent on one of the world's most expensive uncompleted parking garages and on a restoration project that's actually helped destroy the monumental train station. Up to $90 million more may have to be spent to fix it.
The National Visitor Center Act, which became law in 1968, spawned a bureaucratic war between the Department of Interior and the Department of Transportation, a war that has wasted millions of dollars and whose casualties include scores of embittered bureaucrats and the train station itself. Over the last decade, Congress has turned against its own creation, joining in the politically expedient condemnation of the visitor center as another big federal program and refusing to repair a national landmark deteriorating less than half a mile from the Capitol.
"If everything ran like the National Visitor Center, the country would come to a total stop," said Richard J. Sullivan, chief counsel for the House Public Works Committee, which reported the original law to the House and retains primary authority over Union Station. "It wasn't done right and anybody who says anything else is a liar. We should have figured some of this thing out. I make no apologies. I think we mishandled the whole goddamn thing."
House majority leader Wright was correct 13 years ago when he said that Union Station would stand as a monument to Ken Gray, but it is much more. Leaking and rotting, it stands as a pathetic monument to the way business is often conducted in the federal city. CHAPTER I: The Father of It All
The self-proclaimed father of this whole affair is former congressman Ken Gray, also a former used-car salesman, auctioneer, magician, helicopter pilot, airport owner and founder of the Walking Dog Foundation for the Blind. He came to Washington from West Frankfort, Ill., in 1954 at the age of 26, the youngest member of the House of Representatives and a fast-talking young man whose primary legislative goal was to pump pork-barrel money into his district -- the poverty-ridden southern tip of Illinois. Gray claims to have "dropped $4 billion worth of programs" in his district during his 11 terms in Congress.
Kenny Gray, or the "West Frankfort Whirlwind," as he was called back home, retired in 1975, giving ill health as the reason. His hometown newspaper, The Southern Illinoisan, lamented the loss, saying Gray's legislative technique was "classically simple. He log-rolled. You support my project and I'll support yours. The emphasis was on getting the dollars into the region. The specific merits or demerits of all programs were not always thoroughly explored."
In Washington, Gray was a flashy dresser, favoring wine-colored velvet suits, multicolored slacks, bow ties and his trademark: high gloss patent leather shoes. He used country expressions such as "that stuff won't wash" and "that calf won't suck." His constituents bought him a $100,000 jet helicopter, which he used to fly between Washington and his district. He had what was then known as an eye for the ladies; his staff consisted of some of the most attractive young women on Capitol Hill and he personally hired a blond named Elizabeth Ray in 1972.
According to Elizabeth Ray, the major source in the congressional sex-scandal revelations in 1976, a condition of her employment was that she have sex with Gray's friends. Ray claimed that Gray ordered her to have sex with Sen. Mike Gravel (D-Alaska) on the evening of Aug. 10, 1972, to ensure his support for the visitor center. Colleen Gardner, another major figure in the sex-scandal revelations, told a grand jury that she saw Ray and Gravel having sex that night on a houseboat that Gray owned and kept in a Washington marina. Both Gray and Gravel have denied the allegations.
When he left Congress, Gray was chairman of the buildings and grounds subcommittee of the Public Works Committee, a position he used to funnel to his district funds for federal buildings, roads and bridges. Gray's chairmanship afforded him considerable sway over his colleagues in pursuing his pet projects because those congressmen who irritated him could find it difficult to get any federal buildings erected in their home districts. It was as chairman of the buildings and grounds subcommittee that Gray became involved in the National Visitor Center.
"I was continually having complaints from my constituents and others of no place to park in Washington, no place to have a hot meal," explained Gray, in a recent interview in West Palm Beach, Fla., where he now lives in a $255,000 house. Gray, 55, is president of Ken Gray Associates. By capitalizing on contacts he made as a congressman, he makes his living persuading farmers back in southern Illinois to sell their mineral rights to large coal consortiums.
Gray said his subcommittee chairmanship in the mid-1960s made him the logical person to pursue the visitor center project. "Why does Jerry Lewis run that telethon every year? People are motivated to do something for the public good," Gray said. Thirteen years ago, in a closed-door meeting of his subcommittee, Gray mentioned another less altruistic reason for supporting a visitor center with a large parking garage: "I think we would be helping ourselves. I have got three people on my staff that do not have a place to park at all. They have no sticker."
Proposals to convert Union Station to a visitor center had been floating around Washington long before Gray started thinking about parochial parking problems on Capitol Hill. The railroads that owned the train station had been trying to dump it off on the federal government since 1958 because it was costing them more than a $1.3 million a year in maintenance and taxes. For even longer the federal government and local business leaders had been looking for a suitably monumental place for visitors to Washington to park and learn how to find their way around town. After the railroads threatened to tear the station down to put up an office building and several consultants pointed to it as an ideal visitor center, the Johnson White House in 1965 called in congressional leaders such as House Speaker John McCormack, House Majority Leader Carl Albert and Senator Henry M. Jackson for a little chat.
Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who led the chat, told the assembled lawmakers "in very convincing terms" that Union Station was the place for a visitor center, according to a memo written after the meeting. The next year, both President Johnson and Humphrey made speeches calling for a visitor center. Humphrey said in March 1966 that what visitors find in Washington "are parking tickets, a feeling of being strangers and intruders, and above all shabby, cold indifference to their coming here on what truly is a pilgrimage for themselves and their chldren." Two months later, Gray came to the rescue, proposing a commission to investigate a visitor center.
Over the next nine years, Gray devoted thousands of hours to working out snags in the visitor center project. The task gained him no votes back in Illinois. Although he received free electricity on his houseboat for five years from the National Park Service, which runs the visitor center, the benefits Gray earned from his devotion to the project hardly seemed to justify his personal frustration. So why did he do it? Gray says he's "an overzealous type person and when I put my mind to something I like fruition." oInterviews with more than 30 persons who dealt with Gray on Union Station say his motivation was pure boundless egotism. Gray wanted to build a monument to himself. CHAPTER II: The Unique, Regrettable Contract
The late 1960s were bad years for extracting million-dollar public works projects from Congress. The Vietnam War and Johnson's Great Society programs were enormous drains on the federal budget. Therefore, congressmen who wanted money for public works projects often promised that their pet projects wouldn't cost very much. This was especially true for public works projects in Washington, where it is axiomatic that no one wins reelection backing big spending for the District of Columbia.
"If we misled Congress on the cost of the National Visitor Center, it was sort of par for the course," said former Secretary of Interior Stewart L. Udall, who served from 1961 to 1969. "What we did wasnt't conspiratorial. Congress was more likely to buy something if you gave them a low figure rather than a high figure."
The bait-and-switch legislative game, however, appeared conspiratorial and insulting to a Senate subcommittee in 1973. Sen. James A. McClure (R-Id.) examined the visitor center cost estimates and summarized the scheming of those who persuaded Congress to take the bait: "We will give you any kind of gobbledygook in the world to get you involved in the project and then we will come back and you are bound to give us more money."
The formal plan for converting Union Station purportedly came out of the National Visitor Center Study Commission, a blue-ribbon commission of senators, House members and prominent Washington citizens. But, as one member said recently, the commission did very little. Gray, who was appointed to the commission by Speaker McCormack, took command.
In the spring of 1967, Gray held a series of secret meetings with the owners of Union Station -- the Baltimore & Ohio and the Pennsylvania railroads. Not wanting to spend any more money than they absolutely had to, the railroads told Gray they would spend no more than $16 million to restore Union Station and build a parking garage, recalls Minot C. Mulligan, the railroads' chief negotiator at the meeting.
The railroads offered to spend the $16 million for construction and then rent Union Station to the federal government at $3.5 million a year for 25 years (a total of $87.5 million). The federal government supposedly wouldn't spend a cent until it was satisfied with the fixed-up station and the parking garage. At the end of 25 years of paying rent, the government would own the station.
That was the deal. It suited the railroads because they were spending a maximum of $16 million (plus $3 million to build a replacement train station) and in return receiving $87.5 million. They also were getting rid of the white elephant train station. The deal suited Gray because Congress didn't have to spend any money, at least initially. The only problem was that the $16 million estimate was absurd.
"It was clearly impossible at any time to carry out the concept of the National Visitor Center for $16 million," said John T. Collinson, former chief engineer for the B & O and now chairman of the board of the Chessie System, which owns the B & O. "For whatever responsibility or part we had in those early deliberations, we will have to shoulder part of the blame."
The $16 million figure was totally arbitrary. No one inspected Union Station to determine how much it might cost to fix the aging heating, electrical or plumbing systems. The railroads for years had been neglecting costly repairs to the station's roof, hoping to be rid of the building before it began to leak. The government didn't look at the roof.
The General Services Adminstration, however, Ihad taken a careful look at the station three years earlier. It had estimated that a visitor center with a parking garage would cost at least $27 million. Inexplicably, the GSA figures failed to influence the estimates made in 1967. Former secretary Udall said he never even heard about the GSA estimates, although they "should have been taken into consideration."
In the closed-door meetings with the railroads, Gray accepted the $16 million offer and took it upon himself to decide how much of the money should be spent restoring the train station and how much on building the parking garage. According to railroad negotiator Mulligan, Gray was determined that the parking garage would hold 4,000 cars: "The 4,000 parking spaces was wishful thinking by Gray. I told Ken at the time that there was no way [to afford that large a garage]. He sort of shrugged."
Gray denies asking for a 4,000-space parking garage, blaming the estimate on a Wasington architect named Seymour Auerbach. "I'll swear on a stack of Bibles that Auerbach told me for $11 million we could get 4,000 parking spaces," Gray said. Auerbach denies this. He says he did not become involved at the visitor center until more than three months after Gray secretly met with the railroads and the estimates were made. After he became a consultant to the project, Auerbach wrote a cost estimate saying that it would be impossible to build a 4,000-space garage for $11 million. Auerbach said recently he believes Gray is "trying to squirm out" of his responsibility for the visitor center debacle.
After Gray decided that $11 million of the available $16 million for the project should be spent on the garage, the $5 million that remained was by default the estimate for restoring what many consider one of the greatest train stations ever built.
To say the least, this is a strange way of making cost estimates for a federal project. In the 1970s, when cost overruns caught up with Union Station, congressional committees began wondering what had happened in 1967. Gray even faced embarrassing questions from members of his own subcommittee. Rep. Bud Shuster (R-Pa.), during a 1974 hearing that Gray chaired, asked: "Who is the bureaucrat or who is the government contractor that made such outrageous projections. Let us put his name up in neon lights. t
At that hearing, Gray laid the blame for the estimates on architect Auerbach. But Auerbach and urban planner Robert Plavnick, both of whom prepared the final report for the visitor center study commission, said that when they were hired, Gray told them to design something that had a bottom line of $16 million. "We were told 16 million bucks and that's all he [Gray] was going to swing for," Plavnick said.
Eight years after President Johnson locked the $16 million figure into law, an Interior lawyer told an Appropriations subcommittee: "It is the most unique legislation I have ever seen. You put a price on a building before you have it designed." CHAPTER III: The Inexorable Forces of Nature
The bad law that Congress passed was cursed for five years with even worse luck. First came high interest rates, making it impossible for the railroads to borrow $16 million for construction of the visitor center. The loan was impossible to obtain because the 1968 law required the railroads to borrow money at no more than 7 percent interest, a rate that simply was not available. Then came the bankruptcy of the Penn Central Railroad, one of the owners of Union Station, which further delayed a loan that had been painstakingly arranged with two New York City banks.
Up on Capitol Hill, many members of Congress and the House Public Works Committee "sort of forgot" about the plan that had been so earnestly lauded in 1968, according to Public Works Committee cousel Sullivan. But President Richard Nixon, looking forward to a grand bicentennial celebration in Washington in 1976, did not forget. On February 4, 1972, Nixon told Congress that the visitor center was "indispensable." The president directed "the secretary of Interior, in consultation with the secretary of Transportation, to take immediate action to move the National Visitor Center out of the talk stage."
Suddenly, Secretary of Interior Rogers C. B. Morton became inordinately interested in Union Station. He called into his office a deputy secretary for administration named Dick Hite.Hite, a stocky career bureaucrat with a reputation for handling ugly problems, remembers the brief conversations:
"Dick, what the hell is this visitor center?"
"I don't know.I never heard of the son-of-a-bitch," Hite replied.
From then until Morton bailed out of Interior for the Department of Commerce in the spring of 1975, Hite says he heard the secretary tell him more than a hundred times to "get the damn thing built."
Nixon's order whipped Interior into a deadline frenzy. A general manager was hired for the NVC project with two standing orders: Don't leave town for more than 24 hours without leaving a telephone number and finish the visitor center by July 4, 1976. The general manager closed all official letters with a countdown of the number of "working days left to complete the NVC!" Because a president of the United States rarely says anything directly to Interior, department officials remember that the Nixon order had the effect of a directive from God. CHAPTER IV: The Mad Rush And the Leaky Roof
Nixon's deadline forced Interior to do things it now regrets. Interior pressured the railroads into signing a construction contract that provided no significant incentive to save money. Later, Interior signed what it now considers a similarly ill-advised contract, making the George Hyman Construction Company of Bethesda its contractor-agent at Union Station. The contractor-agent was supposed to be constantly searching out ways of saving the government's money and speeding up construction. Hyman, however, was signed into a contract that actually assured it of making more money the longer construction took. Speed-crazed Interior officials forced construction to continue on a "fast-tracked" basis, which eliminated: most competitive bidding and forced work to begin before final plans and cost estimates were figured out. Engineers who looked at the construction project in 1977 condemned the fast-tracking, saying "the faster you go, the further behind you get." These contracts helped cause massive cost overruns that ultimately closed down the visitor center project before it was completed. t
The primary victim of the Nixon-induced frenzy to finish the project was Union Station itself. The day Interior held the official groundbreaking for the visitor center, the station was a disaster waiting to happen. Hite, who now works for the Office of Management and Budget, describes the scene on March 13, 1974: "We had a nice ceremony. Anne Armstrong [adviser to Nixon] was given a golden shovel to use and Rogers Morton was there. But we couldn't bring the Marine band out because we were advised the roof would fall in if they played."
The roof of the great train station was in dire need of extensive repair from 1972 on, but Interior, rushing to have a presentable building for 1976, chose to virtually ignore it. Interior spent $434,000 painting the inside of the station, erecting giant scaffolds in the main waiting room and employing college students to laboriously rub clean the original gold leaf in sunken coffers of the ceiling. The total restoration price of Union Station was $9,125,329, of which just $69,850 was spent for what Interior described as "minimum temporary repair of roof areas." The roof now leaks like a sieve, most of the Interior's painstaking painting and restoration will have to be redone, the insides of the buiding are beginning to come apart and the estimated cost for fixing the roof is nearly $8 million.
Why didn't Interior fix the roof?
"Beats the hell out of me," said Hite. "We were cleaning the eyeballs of the statues and polishing the glass in the skylights, but we didn't fix the damn roof. If that sounds stupid, it sounds stupid. I'm not a construction man."
Jim Gross, the NVC general manager from 1973 to 1978, explains his position on the leaky roof: "I don't know why the roof wasn't fixed. I'm not a construction man. I'm an expert in public relations. One has to admit that if it were my home, I would fix the roof before doing a fancy paint job. But I don't feel responsible for that. I wasn't thinking, in terms of my mandate, that the roof leaked."
Hite explains the decision made by lower level Interior bureaucrats at their scores of meetings on the visitor center: "The decision was, we have a mandate to make it pretty. We'll have to get some extra money to fix the roof?"
The enemies of Interior, namely the Department of Transportation and Amtrak, have had a field day attacking Interior for its roof mistakes. Paul Reistrup, president of Amtrack from 1975 to 1978, claims Interior didn't fix the roof because roof repairs is not very glamorous or showy. "Certainly the first thing you do in any restoration project is fix the roof. But, you see, nobody walking through the visitor center can see a fixed roof. That didn't prove to anybody that Interior was meeting its bicentennial goal. Maybe they should have had tours of the roof -- 'See what we're doing for you.'" CHAPTER V: The Bureaucratic Wars
The Department of Transportation and Amtrak gloat when Interior looks idiotic because they are locked in a bureaucratic war fueled by equal parts of pride, greed and jealousy. Interior and DOT (working with Amtrak) each wanted the front door of Union Station. The department that nails its ownership plaque to the station wins status in Washington -- an awe-inspiring building, a fashionable address with an incomparable view. There was also the thrill of kicking one's bureaucratic opponent out on the street. Listen to them.
Hanan Kivett, architect in charge of DOT's Northeast Corridor Improvement Project: "Here we are, the good guys, trying to bail out Union Station, and Interior was holding the whole thing up. My department has had the good fortune of always being on the right side of this controversy."
Hite, the Interior bureaucrat in charge of handling the project for nearly six years: "I suggest that DOT was a lot more idiotic in this project than the Department of Interior. It just happens that in this instance we had the law behind us. Whether the law was right or wrong didn't make any difference. We had the law. DOT, being rebuffed by the law, resorted to insidious bureaucratic means to get the station back."
In the course of the bureaucratic war, a large hole was dug in Union Station, a hole that DOT alleges was dug by Interior as a roadblock to keep DOT from taking control of the station. Extended, bitter and slightly inane disputes grew out of the placement of a brass railing, a crooked passageway and signs telling people where the trains are. A $265,000 consulting study was commissioned by DOT, a study that recommended, not surprisingly, that DOT take over the station. The consulting study, in fact, says almost precisely what a DOT memo said it should say. The memo was written one year before the consultants completed their study.
To understand the viciousness of the war, one must first examine the fighting parties. First, there is the Department of Interior, an old, low-visibility department founded in 1849 with a primary responsibility for managing some 550 million acres of public land, most of it in the West. Interior bureaucrats in Washington often feel overlooked.
The original National Visitor Center Act named Interior -- through its fiercely independent agency, the National Park Service -- to take control of Union Station. The National Park Service, which owns about 20 percent of downtown Washington, takes obsessive pride in running tourist facilities that are pleasant, pretty and clean. The agency has visitors' centers in most of its national parks and has lusted after one in Washington since the 1950s. Gaining control of Union Station clearly delighted the park service.
In the view of park service officials, the only problem with the train station was that it attracted train passengers. "We had a real problem with the character of the train passengers. We didn't want a bunch of people carrying suitcases walking through the visitor center," said Hite.
The second combatant, the Department of Transportation, is a relatively new, high-visibility department created in 1967 as a grand money-funneling office for some 30 diverse federal agencies that control transportation by air, water, highway and rail in the country. When Congress turned Union Station over to Interior, DOT was in its infancy and had little interest in a station that had been losing rail passengers for 15 years. Railroad passenger service across the country was declining in 1968 and DOT's railroad agency, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), expected the decline to continue. But the FRA was wrong.
Metroliner service was introduced in 1969 and became an immediate hit at Union Station. In 1970, the Nixon administration created Amtrak as a semi-public corporation to preside over what was expected to be the death of most passenger train service. After three rocky years, however, the gasoline shortage in the fall of 1973 made train travel a good bargain and bailed Amtrak out. It became clear to Amtrak and the FRA that Union Station was a valuable property.
As Amtrak has tried frantically to spruce up its image across the country, passenger traffic at Union Station has continued to grow (more than doubling between 1967 and 1977). Meanwhile, Interior's control of the station has become more and more galling to Amtrak officials. The Northeast Corridor train line, of which Union Station is the southern terminus, carries half of Amtrak's passengers and has been its only money-making line. The station is highly visible to all those members of Congress and the administration who might want to take potshots at train travel.
Besides having a seat on Amtrak's board of directors, DOT has another reason for feeling frustrated with Interior's control of Union Station. Congress has given DOT $2.5 billion dollars to fix railroad tracks between Boston and Washington. Despite its big money and the sense of legitimacy that big money bestows on the bureaucrats who spend it, DOT has been unable to seize control of Union Station and make it a fancy front door for the Northeast Corridor. This inability to spend money has been and remains maddening to DOT officials.
The officials at DOT and Interior seemed destined to hate each other from the moment their interests focused on Union Station. Kivett of DOT says bitterly than his department felt nothing good could happen to Union Station until Interior was kicked out. Hite at Interior says "Hanan Kivett is a jerk."
"A very underrated factor in people's understanding of the federal government is that bureaucrats are very dedicated human beings and dedicated human beings fight for what they think is best," Hite says. "Unfortunately, in the bureaucracy, you get tunnel vision. What I think we all lost sight of is what is best for the taxpayers. After eight years of haggling and $50 million in expenditures, we all failed to consider what is best for the magnificent train station."
In the spring of 1974, Interior unveiled what DOT says was the ultimate burearcratic weapon: the pit. Interior dug a hole in the main waiting room of the station as a place for a slide show. The pit was incontrovertible evidence that Interior, after six years of stalling, was indeed doing something. DOT's Kivett said the pit was "the most explicit expression of territorial prerogative that anyone could perceive. mYou couldn't find anything more visible to stake out your turf." Interior denies any claim that it dug the pit for non-architectural reasons.
From the pit-digging spring of 1974 on, the petty jealousies of DOT and Interior escalated into the byzanfine, bloodless warfare peculiar to Washington -- warfare fought with consulting reports, task forces, strategy meetings, congressional stroking, press releases and endless intradepartmental memoranda that surreptitiously assess who's winning. During these years, distrust and meanness infected nearly everyone with an interest in Union Station.
DOT and Amtrak squared off against Interior and the Park Service, while the railroads, which own Union Station and were trying to get out of it as cheaply as possible, were universally despised. The railroads, in turn, resented DOT, Amtrak, Interior and the Park Service.
The bad blood spawned a lawsuit in June of 1974. Amtrak sued the railroads that owned Union Station, fearing that they would not build an adequate replacement station after the old building was turned into a visitor center. The suit toppled the delicate funding arrangement for construction. Banks that had promised a $16-million loan to the owners backed out, fearing the suit would complicate title to the property. The owners stopped construction. Interior assumed the $50,000-a-day cost of construction for 25 days, then backed out for lack of money. Up on Capitol Hill, Ken Gray was shaking down Congress for money. CHAPTER VI: The Capitol Hill Shuffle
As Union Station began to crumble, as the bureaucrats and other disaffected actors down at the station bludgeoned each other with lawsuits and pit digging, Congress as a whole seemed not to care. It might have been different had there been any votes in making sure that the visitor center project was properly managed. It might have been different had members of Congress ridden trains to their home districts, instead of airplanes. (At National Airport, the airport of the lawmakers, Congress is known as the "board of directors.") But the House and Senate are busy places, and members have more on their minds than the rape of a train station they don't use.
Union Station, by default, was left to the House Public Works Committee, which reported the original visitor center law, and to Ken Gray, the law's dotting father. Unfortunately for the train station, Gray and the committee were infected with the same parochial loyalties and hatreds as were the battling bureaucrats.
The Public Works Committee, a powerful and eclectic committee that builds dams, erects bridges and deals with problems ranging from oil spills to airplane crashes, has jurisdiction over every major form of transportation in the country except railroads. The committee, in fact, has developed a genuine aversion to trains, having fought railroads in favor of highway and waterway projects. For his part, Gray found both Amtrak and the DOT to be pushy interlopers at Union Station. At Hill hearings, he described Amtrak as "the most obstinate bunch of people I have ever seen" and he said the best approach for DOT to take at the station was to stay out of Interior's way.
Both Gray and the committee were committed to keeping Interior in control at Union Station. The creation of Amtrak, the resurgence of passenger train travel and the billion-dollar congressional mandate for fixing the tracks in the Northeast Corridor did not affect this committment. DOT and Amtrak viewed Gray and the committee as malevolent despots; Interior viewed them as saintly providers.
Interior needed saintly providers because of its inadequate supervision and general bungling at Union Station. Seemingly every time the department opened its eyes, there were cost overruns. The parking garage became a money-devouring monstrosity that escalated from $11 million in 1968 to $18 million in 1973 to $36 million in 1977 to the current estimate that a finished garage with access ramps will cost nearly $69 million. Despite its woeful performance, Interior found Gray and the committee inordinantly willing to fork over money.
"The money just arrived. It came almost instantly, without strings, without seemingly any effort," said Nathaniel Reed, a former assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks at Interior. "I had constant problems with cash for the park service and the fish and wildlife service. But Gray, with no oversight, no hearings by Appropriations, would just get the money for the visitor center. They would call us up and say, 'you've got more money.'"
Gray coaxed $8.6 million out of Congress in 1973 and $12.9 million in 1974.
In the Senate, which has been more solicitous to the problems of passenger trains than the House, there was some grumbling and feeble attempts to steal away the Public Works Committee's lock on Union Station. Former Sen. Vance Hartke (D-Ind.), after chairing hearings on the station, wrote a colleague in 1974 and said that Washington will always have "an inadequate terminal" unless the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation comes to the rescue.
Sen. Jim McClure (R-Idaho), of the Environment and Public Works Committee, didn't like the way Gray was handling the visitor center and assigned a committee staffer to investigate. In a memo, the staffer wrote that the history of the project is "sad and messy." The memo concluded: "Whatever happens, you may want to consider an amendment requiring that the Center be forever painted a lustrous shade of 'kengray.'"
But the Senate, while Gray was in Congress, did nothing. It approved all the money for the visitor center without any debate. A senior Senate staff aide explained:
"Union Station is an issue for the Senate that doesn't get anybody excited. There is no constituency, no votes for it. If you do spend time, you know that the House is going to fight with you. The only publicity a senator is likely to get would be negative if he goes out front and attaches his name to a bill that calls for $60 or $70 million. So, the senators say to hell with it."
Another Senate staffer said that if the District of Columbia had some representation in the Senate, the train station would not have suffered so much. "He could go around the Senate to his colleagues and say this thing is an embarassment. He would have a reason to keep at it and get something done."
When Gray left Congress in 1975, the visitor center lost its sugar daddy. The money stopped flowing and the project foundered. Sidney Yates (D-Ill.), chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on Interior, took a disliking to the visitor center and immediately began holding up funds that Gray had pushed Congress to authorize in 1974.
The visitor center opened in 1976 as an almost immediate and total flop. Tourists were baffled by the monumental empty building and train passengers kept asking where the trains were. An unexpected cost overrun of nearly $5 million stopped construction of the parking garage, which is now rusting and is yet to hold its first parked car. Union Station became an eyesore, a national joke.
When the Carter administration came to Washington in 1977, two new secretaries of Interior and DOT resolved to end the destructive interdepartmental war. Union Station must be salvaged, they announced; it should be a great train station like in the old days. The Senate and many members of the House felt the same way. But hopes for a quick and easy fix at Union Station were soon crushed beneath the iron will of a new and stubborn chairman of the Public Works Committee and the same old bureaucrats started stabbing each other in the back again. CAPTION: Picture 1, Granite, 25-ton statues of railroad gods dominate Union Station's facade. By Craig Herndon -- The Washington Post; Picture 2, One of the world's most expensive uncompleted parking garages, the rusting structure behind Union Station is a money-devouring monstrosity. Unfinished after 12 years, its cost has escalated from an estimated $11 million in 1968 to $69 million today. By Craig Herndon -- The Washington Post; Picture 3, Former representative Kenneth J. Gray: promising something for nothing.; Pictures 4 and 5, Union Station's present waiting room and the old concourse, now used as a passageway to the new station. The stark waiting room has been compared to the lobby of a small-town hotel on a bad day. By Craig Herndon -- The Washington Post Symbol, no caption; Picture 6, Former Rep. Gray shown in his private helicopter in 1967 over Union Station. By Bob Burchette -- The Washington Post; Picture 7, Rainwater pouring through the roof of the station has rotted floors and walls. By Craig Herndon -- The Washington Post