Members of Congress have spent an inordinately large chunk of this legislative session hating on mass transit (and that's inordinate compared even to the amount of time they’ve spent hating on other widely beloved American assets such as women, the Census, light bulbs and Muppets). Our own Eric Jaffe had a good roundup back in February of some of Congress’ worst ideas to rewrite 30 years of federal funding for public transit. We won’t rehash the details here except to remind you that The New York Times called those earlier proposals “uniquely terrible,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood (a Republican) called the bill they were embedded in “the worst transportation bill I’ve ever seen,” while Grist smartly summarized the situation as being “soaked in suburban identity politics.”
After months of wrangling, Congress entered this week under deadline to finally produce a bill (lest money for bridges, highways and trains run out). The more we thought about the transportation debate coming to a head in the halls of the Capitol, with senators and House members scurrying back and forth to strike a last-minute deal, the more one thought started to nag at us: Wait a minute. The congressmen who spent much of this year fighting over the value of transit in fact have the sweetest underground public transit system around. And we pay for it.
If you've never visited the U.S. Capitol or come to town to glad-hand your representative, you may be unaware of this perk of congressional service: These people do not walk anywhere.
The U.S. Capitol and the massive House and Senate office buildings on either side of it are spread across several spacious blocks of Capitol Hill. And they’re all connected underground by Congress' very own subway system. We were reminded of that this week when the Washington history blog Ghosts of D.C. unearthed the above image, circa 1915, of some important people enjoying a subway ride under the Capitol complex.
The system first started operating in 1909 (nearly 70 years before the rest of Washington got a subway system). Back then, politicians got back and forth between the Russell Senate Office Building and the Capitol in these stately Studebaker cars:
A few years later, the system was replaced by a monorail, and over the decades since parts of it have been expanded and replaced to serve both House and Senate buildings, along three separate rail lines, with this fancy automatic train on the Senate side.
In several ways, this system is much nicer than whatever public transit you use. For one thing, it’s free. It keeps running at night as late as its riders need it (still voting on a bill at 3 a.m.? The train conductors will stay late, too!). And when congressmen really need to get somewhere – during a vote on the floor – everyone else must get out of their way. Imagine being able to clear a subway car at rush hour in New York City.
As a lowly American taxpayer who subsidizes this thing, you may ride it, too, though if a member or congressional staffer escorts you on board.
Perhaps some of these politicians who’ve been ragging on public transit don’t realize they’ve been riding on it all along. But look around, esteemed elected officials: Isn’t it just great when you don’t have to walk that fifth of a mile back to your office after casting a vote to cut transit funding?