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  • The Washington Post Century
    Politics Couldn’t Derail Metro, D.C.’s Engine of Change

    By Douglas B. Feaver
    Special to The Washington Post
    Monday, Oct. 25, 1999; Page A1

    The Washington Post Century

    Metro engineer Roy T. Dodge inspects a tunnel in 1969. (Frank Hoy - The Post)
    Another in a biweekly series of stories about the people and events that shaped Washington in the 20th century.

    Cleatus Barnett, then and now a Metro board member, knew he had a winner the day the subway opened. This despite the fact that downtown Washington was torn up by construction; despite the fact that several spanking new trains refused to budge when hundreds of people jumped on board; and despite the fact that Jackson Graham – the dominating personality who made Metro possible – had taken a powder.

    It was Saturday, March 27, 1976, a warm, overcast day. Some people stood in line as long as four hours to board the trains for a free ride that lasted less than 10 minutes and covered all of 4.6 miles. By the end of the day, more than 50,000 people had traveled the Red Line between the elevated platform at Rhode Island Avenue and Farragut North, a huge tunnel under Connecticut Avenue at L Street NW.

    That day presented "the first solid evidence that Metro was real," said Barnett, 72, who has represented Montgomery County on the board since 1971. "The enthusiasm of the people was just overwhelming."

    The cast included Mayor Walter E. Washington, D.C. Council Chairman Sterling Tucker and Maryland Gov. Marvin Mandel. Virginia Gov. Mills E. Godwin – an unenthusiastic partner at best – sent his secretary of transportation.

    Despite the rosy glow, the Metro we know today was much in doubt, beset with political and financial uncertainty. Few could envision how it would transform commuting in the exploding Washington area, or that it would become an enormous engine for redevelopment.

    Nearly 24 years later, Metro's 103-mile system is all but complete; the last short section of the Green Line, running from Anacostia to Branch Avenue in Prince George's County, is scheduled to open in the spring of 2001. The system provides as many as 600,000 rides a day.

    Major developments sit atop Metro stations throughout the region. The rail system has helped revitalize downtown, Wilson Boulevard in Arlington County, Wisconsin Avenue/Rockville Pike in the District and Montgomery County, the Greenbelt area of Prince George's County and on and on. Pentagon City, an open field in 1976, is now one of the most successful shopping malls per square foot anywhere.

    Katherine K. Hanley, chairman of the Metro Board, looks back on the 1970s – when Metro was in danger of being cut back severely – and notes that "the controversy now is over how to expand." The system "has great support politically," she said, "and if you look at everybody's campaign literature, you would find that expanding rail to Tysons and Dulles is the top of the transportation priorities."

    She should know. Her other job is chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, and she is seeking reelection next week.

    A Regional Dream

    Dreams of a Washington subway system had been kicking around at least since the end of World War II, and the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority – Metro's official name – was born in 1967 to carry them out. The regional coalition was built through substantially identical legislation from Capitol Hill, Richmond and Annapolis; the District was still governed by federally appointed commissioners.

    The growing suburbs wanted quick trips into the city, where the jobs were. Mayor-Commissioner Washington wanted to find ways for transit-dependent residents to get to jobs downtown and in the suburbs.

    The system that emerged was supposed to be 98 miles long, cost $2.5 billion and be completed within 10 years of groundbreaking. The feds were to kick in $1.6 billion; the local share was to come from bonds paid off with subway fares. Three high-powered consultant studies produced in the 1960s promised the sound economics of all this.

    Maj. Gen. Jackson Graham, retired from the Army Corps of Engineers, was hired as Metro's first general manager. He brought a combination of charm, knowledge, arrogance, efficiency, energy and a passion for earth tones, which explains a lot of what you see on the subway today, from the background colors of the signs to the interior of the cars. "He never wore anything but a brown suit," said Roy T. Dodge, another Corps of Engineers general whom Graham hired to supervise construction.

    In special elections, more than 70 percent of the area's voters approved the sale of bonds to construct Metro. Then reality set in.

    The consultant studies hadn't factored in the high rate of inflation. They hadn't figured on the power of the freeway lobby that saw rail transit as a competitor for federal dollars. (Congress withheld Metro's federal money for two years after the 1969 groundbreaking in an attempt to force the District to build more freeways and another bridge across the Potomac.) They hadn't considered the fights that would develop over routes, environmental issues, access for the disabled, set-asides for minority contractors and other realities of modern-day public works.

    All of these resulted in delays and higher costs. Yet when called to testify at congressional hearings, Graham insisted time after time that the costs would stay the same.

    When Metro actually started carrying paying passengers, the estimated cost had risen to $6 billion. When the last segment opens in 2001, the total spent will be about $10 billion.

    But those first-day riders saw the genius of the system, which has now won worldwide acclaim: the high arching ceilings, the subdued indirect lighting, the low retaining fences that make the walls difficult to deface, the absence of hidden corners or public restrooms to invite trouble.

    Graham had told Dodge to get as much of the system under construction as quickly as possible, saying that "if we get a big enough hole in the ground, they can't stop us," Dodge recalls.

    Dodge followed orders, but the construction made a mess of Washington. At one time or another, G Street, I Street, 12th Street and Connecticut Avenue were torn up and repaved with heavy timbers while the tunnels were carved out below. Cars were sometimes limited to one lane in each direction, and they crept by on the uneven wood boards. Lafayette Square was surrounded with construction fences. Small businesses were shut off from their customers, and some of them failed.

    Subway builders blasted through hard rock, cut open streets, propped up huge buildings from below and worked around cables and pipes and other tunnels that permeate underground Washington. "NASA asked us to stop digging during one of the moon launches," Dodge said, "because they were afraid we would cut a communications link they had to have." Metro stopped digging.

    There was one spectacular cave-in, at the corner of Connecticut Avenue and M Street NW, when the wooden planks slid into the hole below. It happened overnight, and nobody was hurt. But at least a dozen workers were killed during construction of the system.

    Dodge, 82, a courtly Southerner living in retirement near Fort Belvoir, also remembers the stalling trains on opening day. So many people crammed into the cars that the frames bent and kept the doors from closing tightly enough to satisfy the safety systems.

    "We knew how many people could get in a car, and we knew how much they would weigh," he said. During tests, Metro had distributed lead weights throughout cars equaling the estimated poundage of a full load of real people. Everything worked fine. Problem is, real people "don't organize themselves the way engineers organize lead weights," he said.

    Graham spent his weekends on inspection tours, often gunning his motorcycle through the tunnels, sometimes with his diminutive wife, Mabel Lee, riding on the back. He loved to show his project to politicians, federal budget examiners and reporters, whom he took on walking tours under the Potomac River in the tunnel that now connects Rosslyn and Foggy Bottom.

    But while the subway was being built, Congress complicated the process by forcing Metro in 1973 to take over the region's four failing privately owned local bus companies. The companies suddenly required public subsidies that became an unwelcome new line item in local government budgets and a political problem for Graham. He had been hired to build a magnificent subway, not run a bunch of stinky old buses.

    So the energy he invested in his new franchise, dubbed Metrobus, was minimal. The early Metrobus provided wretched service, especially in the District, where it served a black majority population. Since Metro was an almost all-white, all-male construction company, Graham's inattention to the buses did not escape local politicians or their constituents.

    And his continued insistence before Congress that $2.5 billion would complete the subway had become a political liability, both on Capitol Hill and with local governments, which could see they were going to have pick up more costs.

    Late in 1975, Tucker, the D.C. Council chairman, was about to rotate into the chairmanship of the Metro board. He and Graham had clashed on a number of issues, including the sensitive one of minority contracting.

    Graham resigned without warning. Barnett set out to reverse the resignation, but said "I found less support [on the board] than I thought I would find" and abandoned the project.

    Graham retired to Palm Springs, Calif., but he had accomplished more than many understood at the time: Five stations had been completed, test trains were running on the Red Line, and 45 miles of subway were under construction.

    The first section of Metro to open carried the Senate and its staffers and members of the Supreme Court to the restaurants on Connecticut Avenue. The second section – the Blue Line from National Airport to Stadium-Armory – opened a year later in July and connected the House and its staffers to the Redskins games and the airport, traffic free.

    Meanwhile, the most transit-dependent sections of the Washington region – to be served primarily by the Green Line – were placed far down the schedule.

    In an interview in Palm Springs in 1978, Graham derided local politicians as "little people," saying the only guidance he got from them was, "For God's sakes, get the buses running."

    Had he distorted or concealed from Congress the true costs of Metro as inflation and other factors drove up the price?

    "I don't think I did anything dishonest," he said. "You can't change estimates every day." Then he arched his right eyebrow and grinned. "We only re-did estimates once a year – after the congressional appropriations hearings, not before."

    Bicentennial Debacle

    Despite the opening day enthusiasm, Metro was not out of the woods. The cost estimates were obviously wrong; a federal guarantee had been placed on the bonds, but because the system opened late and wasn't making money, there wasn't any way to pay them off.

    Jimmy Carter was new in town and sent a letter to his secretary of transportation, Brock Adams, saying, "I suspect that many of the rapid transit systems are grossly overdesigned." Federal commitments to Metro were effectively reduced from a pledge to finance the entire planned system to one that promised to pay only for "operable segments."

    The feds ordered the region to revisit its unbuilt subway routes, with the clear implication that cuts were expected.

    As July 4, 1976, approached, Metro assured the public that its bus system could handle the Bicentennial blowout on the Mall. Yet the night was a transportation disaster; people were stranded for hours after the fireworks ended. At this point, Metro's existing management, which had tried so hard to build the subway and ignore the buses, was politically bankrupt.

    "It was one of the worst PR days we ever had," Barnett said. "I said, 'Look, folks, just don't defend it. Move on.'"

    An inside candidate to replace Graham was abandoned. Tucker and the board set out to persuade a 30-year-old financial whiz kid to take the job. Theodore C. Lutz had managed the D.C. budget account in the Office of Management and Budget, then had moved to the Transportation Department to deal with its budget.

    He was respected both in the District Building and on Capitol Hill. All he knew about building subways was what he learned on one or two of Graham's weekend tours, "and I had never managed more than five people at one time," he said in an interview.

    He exhausted himself in his 2½ years at Metro, but in the process reorganized the bus department, negotiated financial settlements with the feds on the troublesome bonds, provided a reliable set of numbers on Capitol Hill, stroked local governments, and hired Carmen Turner to a highly visible management position, the first for a black person at Metro. Now deceased, she become Metro's fourth general manager. Lutz is now a vice president and business manager of The Washington Post.

    In 1977, the region's political leaders ratified the existing Metro plans and vowed to fight for the money to complete them, a fight they won. They were given the backbone to do so by a public that said in a week-long series of hearings across the region that it wanted Metro.

    Last Train Back

    Jackson Graham didn't see his subway system in operation until December 1978, when he and Mabel Lee joined some friends and boarded at National Airport. "We stopped at every station," Graham said in a 1980 interview. "I was very happy. I talked to people. They liked it . . . We rode the last train back from New Carrollton."

    Graham died at 69 in 1985.

    Douglas B. Feaver, editor of, covered Metro from 1975 to 1981.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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