Two years ago, the long cat fight over ownership rights at Union Station seemed to be over. Officials from all the warring federal departments appeared as brothers on Capitol Hill and said, let's fix the train station before it falls down.
Their plan was crushed by a man from California named Bizz Johnson.
All this year there's been an $11 million emergency repair bill pending in the Senate to keep Union Station from falling down. No action, however, was taken because the Senate was waiting to see what Bizz Johnson would do.
Before the election, a Washington lawyer who knows about such things was asked to name the key people in the future of Union Station, the monumental train terminal turned National Visitor Center turned leaky granite slum. The lawyer said, "It's Bizz Johnson, period."
Just who is this Bizz Johnson and why did everybody think he was so powerful?
Rep. Harold T. (Bizz) Johnson is a 72-year-old, slow-talking, Jowly faced Democratic lawmaker from Yolo County, Calif.He has a habit of sticking out his jaw when people disagree with him, displaying an "over my dead body" scowl. He also happens to be chairman of the House Public Works Committee -- although he will leave that post in January, a victim of the avalanche of Republicanism that swept him and others from Congress on election day. Under the rules of the games that are played in this federal city where Congress writes the rules, that chairmanship made Bizz Johnson a big man at Union Station, what one railroad buff called "The Ultimate Stationmaster."
Over the last three years that Johnson was the master of Union Station, Congress failed to enact any law to help preserve the national landmark that is rapidly deteriorating because of a leaky roof and serious structural problems. Since the station is less than half a mile from the Capitol and members of the House and Senate are likely to hear the noise if it ever falls down, it's curious why Congress hasn't acted sooner.
It is equally curious that Congress, which 12 years ago overwhelmingly voted to convert Union Station to a visitor center and has spent or committed itself to spend more than $117 million on the project, now laughs at the station as though it were somebody else's fault. Last December, a proposal to spend $62 million more to turn the converted station back into a working train terminal was ridiculed on the House floor and rejected by a vote of 247 to 139.
The logical person to go to for an understanding of this curious behavior is Bizz Johnson. But Johnson isn't talking. Before the election, he refused or ignored more than 30 requests to discuss Union Station. Faced with his first serious reelection challenge in 11 terms, Johnson had more important things to think about than the train station, according to his staff. He worried about the voters in Chico, Redding and Red Bluff, and they didn't care about Washington's train station.
Bizz Johnson, however, need not talk. What's failed to happen at Union Station -- what often fails to happen in this city where members of Congress are briefly vested with autocratic authority -- can be understood by knowing that Johnson stuck out his jaw many times over the last three years and scowled his stubborn scowl and everyone in Washington had no choice but to watch the train station crumble.
There were bright hopes back in 1978 to resolve the Union Station farce. The Department of Interior, which had been chosen 10 years earlier by the Public Works Committee to run the National Visitor Center and had ineptly presided over massive cost overruns in constructing an embarrassingly unpopular oasis for tourists, decided to throw in the towel and give the station to the Department of Transportation. DOT, which had lusted after the building as a fancy showplace for the revitalizaton of passenger train service in the country, planned to knock down the much-criticized "replacement station" that was built in the mid-1970s behind the original station, bring the tracks back in and take advantage of what was once one of the most beautiful and functional train stations in the world.
Two new secretaries of Interior and Transportation resolved to end the seven-year squabble between their departments over who should run the place. "When we arrived on the scene," said Brock Adams, then-secretary of Transportation, "both Cece (Interior Secretary Cecil D. Andrus) and I looked at this building and it was nonfunctioning. Cece is a very decent, direct guy. We said to each other, let's go over this idea there is some fight between our departments and do what is necessary to get out of this mess."
The two secretaries took their friendship and their agreement up to hearings of the public works committees of the House and Senate. In the Senate hearings, they were warmly greeted and their $60 million plan was quickly approved. Even at the House hearings, where the plan to fix Union Station was initially considered by the buildings and grounds subcommittee of the full Public Works Committee, everyone was bubbling with good cheer, at first.
"We reported the DOT bill [taking the station away from Interior and giving it to DOT] out of the subcommittee and felt great about it," said Rep. Norman Y. Mineta (D-Calif.), then-chairman of the subcommittee and a House member who in three terms has gained a reputation for hard work and integrity.
Mineta felt great, the Senate felt great, Adams and Andrus felt great. But they had yet to encounter old Bizz Johnson. When the DOT bill moved to the full Public Works Committee it hit what Adams called "a brick wall." t
"The brick wall was Bizz Johnson," said Mineta. "It is tough for some people to see what changes are occurring, you know, the good ole days kind of thing.Heck, Bizz's has been here 22 years. It's tough for him to make some of those changes."
There are two compelling reasons why Johnson smothered the DOT bill. Neither of the reasons has much to do with the merits of the DOT proposal, but they do shed a rather uncomplimentary light on why senior members of Congress sometimes think the way they do.
The first reason is inertia. Johnson was on the Public Works Committee in 1968 when the original bill was passed to turn Union Station into a visitor center and back then he actively supported the idea. Despite gross mismanagement by Interior at the visitor center, the failure of the center to attract tourists, a 10-year doubling in train passengers at Union Station and a billion-dollar-plus investment by Congress in repairing train tracks that terminate at the station, Johnson still supported the original plan.
"I hate to disagree," Johnson told his committee in 1978, "but I think that the American people, the taxpayers and those of us in Congress would be better satisfied if we completed the visitor center somewhat as we visualized it when we first started."
The second reason is loyalty. In his 22 years in Congress, Johnson devoted most of his time to championing large reclamation, canal and dam projects in his northern California district and throughout the West -- projects controlled by Interior. Johnson, according to Interior officials and congressional staffers, was always a fast friend of Interior. With his seniority, Johnson was able in 1977 to choose either the chairmanship of the Interior Committee or the Public Works Committee. Those who knew Johnson figured he'd take Interior.
But, faced with strong opposition from Interior Committee members who didn't like his antienvironmental record, Johnson opted for Public Works. He went to Public Works, all right, but his heart still belonged to Interior.
"I say let the Department of Interior take care of most visitors to the City of Washington. I think they do a very good job throughout the city," Johnson told his committee, as he gutted the DOT plan to take over Union Station.
As a result, Interior was in the awkward position of administering a building that its own secretary didn't want. Johnson's action, however, was enormously popular among lower-level Interior bureaucrats, especially in the National Park Service, who'd never given up hope that they'd be able to hang on to Union Station. Jack Fish, director of the national capital region of the park service, says he didn't want to turn the station over to DOT because "we felt it would have been a better visitor experience if we could have the whole building."
The death in 1978 of the plan to turn Union Station over to DOT revived the bureaucratic war that Adams and Andrus had briefly managed to stop. In the last two years, Interior and DOT have continued to bicker over who gets how much floor space in the building if and when Congress gets around to passing another law.
The whole Union Station affair has left a bad taste in the mouths of both Andrus and Adams. For Andrus, who announced well before Jimmy Carter failed to win reelection that he would retire in January, the intractable mess at the train station contributed to his decision that he could make a better life for himself back home in Idaho.
Adams, who was fired from DOT in 1979, says that from the moment Johnson torpedoed his proposal the whole train station issue dropped "out of the attention of the secretaries and the lower-level guys got their fingers back into it. The experience I've had in Washington is that if you run into disagreement in any kind of interagency program, you get paralysis. Individuals who have been here a long time start to believe in a concept. If you change that concept they dig in their heels and they'll nitpick you to death. As a secretary, they'll never say no to you; they'll hold endless meetings and nothing ever moves."
Andrus and Adams are just two among hundreds of bureaucrats who've wrestled with the Union Station dilemma. In fact, a major obstacle to resolving disputes at the station has been their hopeful arrival and demoralized departure. Since the House first considered the visitor center law in 1967, there have been four presidents, eight secretaries of Interior, seven secretaries of Transportation, four directors of the National Park Service, three presidents of Amtrak and countless policy-level-officials who've juggled problems at the train station and left town. The most common response of these retired bureaucrats, when asked about Union Station, is a groan followed by nervous laughter.
The election of Ronald Reagan will bring to Washington a fifth presidential administration to preside over the muddle at Union Station. A whole new crop of decision makers will have no choice but to learn the sordid past of the train station and attempt or pretend to do something about it.
After Bizz Johnson scuttled the plan to turn Union Station over to DOT, there were two further attempts by his committee to pass a train station bill, but these efforts were found lacking by either Interior or DOT.
For the first compromise bill, rejected last December by a 2-to-1 vote of the House, Johnson gave up his contention that Interior had to control all of the old Union Station building. He said DOT could knock down the "replacement station" and bring the tracks back to the old station's concourse. But Johnson was stingy with space in Union Station, limiting DOT to only 40,000 square feet in the concourse for train station purposes. Under that bill, Interior would have remained in control of the station, renting space to DOT.
This year Johnson compromised a little more. Interior would continue as the lead department at Union Station, but it would rent the entire concourse to DOT. Like its predecessors, this year's bill calls for the completion of the parking lot behind the train station that was left unfinished in 1976 because of massive cost overruns. The bill asks for $36.1 million on new authorization, that would be added to the $22.84 million already appropriated from the $2.5 billion Northeast Corridor Rail Improvement Project.
The problem with all these intricate compromises is that Congress, for the most part, couldn't care less.
"There just ain't no constituency for this bill in the House," according to Rep. Mineta. "I don't think anyone is interested in spending another $59 million for a train station. I remember last December when we last voted on this thing. I was standing by a door in the House and one congressman was saying, 'Don't buy this Christmas turkey.'
"Unless the Public Works Committee and Bizz Johnson say this is really a different animal, unless they can educate the members and really sell this bill, in the mush of the members' minds they will say this is the same old thing all over again and they will reject it. Mainly, the Public Works Committee will have to admit it was wrong in the past. That's pretty tough for anyone to do."
While Johnson refuses to talk about Union Station, his staff says unequivocally that "the boss" is not about to go to the floor of the House and tell anyone that he's been wrong. No matter what Johnson chooses to do, now that both he and the 96th Congress are lame ducks it's unlikely that any Union Station bill will pass this year. "We are going to have to go into a new Congress and start all over again," says one DOT official.
If by some miracle the House were to pass the $59-million bill either this year or in the future, there are seemingly insoluble problems waiting for it in the Senate. Pulling in one direction, Sen. Russell Long (D-La.), of the subcommittee on surface transportation of the Commerce Committee, wants to spend an additional $30 million to build a bus terminal behind Union Station. sAnd in the other direction, a Republican-controlled Senate makes the odds on any new federal spending at Union Station slimmer than ever.
Republican members of the House Public Works Committee, who've been willing to support an expensive bus station. They claim they will scuttle any bill that calls for spending $90 million.
None of the leading Republicans, however, wants to talk publicly about Union Station. It is a sensitive, embarrassing subject and, as Hill staffers keep saying, there ain't any votes in it. "If there is a bigger blight on the Public Works Committee's reputation, I can't imagine what it is," said one staffer.
While this foul brew simmers in Congrress, the federal officials who have been battling over the train station for much of the past decade are up to their old tricks.
Interior, forced to spend $2 million this fall on what will ultimately be an $8 million roof repair job at Union Station, continues to talk about the possibility of a "quality visitor experience" if Congress would just pass the pending law.
DOT officials, who hoped against hope that Bizz Johnson would be defeated, now are guardedly optimistic that the Public Works Committee, under the probably chairmanship of Rep. James Howard (D-N.J.), will finally turn the station over to them.
Amtrak, with DOT's blessing, has announced a study by the Urban Land Institute, proposing the conversion of Union Station into a train station mall with shops, restaurants and entertainment. Not surprisingly, the Amtrak-sponsored study concluded that if anybody should have the sole control of Union Station it should be Amtrak. Not surprisingly either, the Public Works Committee resents Amtrak's "presumptuous" study, according to one staffer.
In short, nothing has changed.
One longtime Washington lawyer, who's been an actor and observer in the Union Station fisaco for 17 years, argues that it may be 50 years before Congress fixes the train station. The lawyer draws an analogy between the train station and the Washington Monument. The monument, which took 51 years from planning in 1833 to completion in 1884, was beset with byzantine financial and jurisdictional problems. It stood unfinished for some 21 years, an ugly granite stump, until Congress decided it wanted to deal with the problem.
According to scores of interviews, there is no mood in Congress now to deal with Union Station, to spend up to $90 million for a first-rate visitor center or a first-rate train station. The best that can be hoped for, according to bureaucrats, congressmen and congressional staffers who claim inside knowledge, is that sometime in the not too distant future a law will pass to do a less than good job of fixing up Union Station.
"If members of Congress rode trains," said Congressmen Mineta, "it might be different."
Down at Union Station a few tourists continue to wander around in the cavernous main waiting room. They stare in wonder at the dark, empty hole in the ground that Interior dug six years ago for a "Welcome to Washington" slide presentation. They crane their necks to gaze at the paint peeling off the gilded barrel-vaulted ceiling. They ask where the trains are.
One recent afternoon, a young woman visiting Washington from Bonn, West Germany, spent 30 minutes wandering around the station. The young tourist, Ute Webel, had a quizzical slightly disturbed look on her face.
"I read about this place in German magazine," she said. "It said they make it more like a museum than a train station and that you couldn't believe it. It is very strange to me. It is very quiet. Maybe for an American it is normal."