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Traveler's Diary

The Shortest Route in Capitol Is Underground

March 16, 1986|HORACE SUTTON | Sutton is editor of Signature magazine.

WASHINGTON — Considering the kooky cab system and the possibility that Himself may be using the presidential limousine the day you arrive, the best way to get around in the nation's capital and its environs is aboard the Metro, the refined subway system that is clean, clean, clean and goes everywhere.

I say kooky cab system because cabs come in all varieties, mostly without meters, and are driven by cabbies who charge big bucks if you cross a district line and the only one who knows whether you've done that is the guy behind the wheel.

The ride to the Washington Hilton from National Airport, which is practically in the lap of the Pentagon, the other night, cost $15 with tip. And a short jaunt from a restaurant hard by the Capitol to the door of the Capitol Hilton, which almost looks into the White House, was calculated at $4.50 before the tip.

And that is how I learned to use the Metro, which covers 2,300 square miles, invades Virginia and Maryland, goes clear to the airport and rolls out to Rockville, Shady Grove and Alexandria.

Underground Metropolis

The Metro-developed Crystal City, an underground metropolis with 5,000 hotel rooms, including two Marriotts, goes to White Flint, the suburban shopping center with its own Bloomingdale's and I. Magnin, covering 60 miles dotted with 60 stations, all clean. The depots were designed to foil graffiti artists by the use of vaulted arched ceilings in the stations.

If a car should appear with a mark of a doodler, it is immediately taken out of service and scrubbed. It costs a million dollars a year to keep Metro squeaky clean.

Departing from the resort-like Washington Hilton the other morning (tennis courts, swimming pool and outdoor dining, spring to fall; hot tubs, saunas and massages all year), it was a short stroll to the nearest station at Dupont Circle marked by a pylon with a large M. There a deep escalator descended to the platforms where one buys tickets, plots routes and boards trains.

Figure Your Route

First you figure the sights you want to see, then you calculate what it will cost to get to all of them. Rush-hour fares, from 6 to 9:30 a.m. and from 3 to 6:30 p.m., could run as high as $1.80 or as low as 75 cents. All non-rush-hour fares anywhere on the system are 75 cents. The cashless fare system is called Farecard, bought from a vending machine. Coins or bills can be deposited and the rider can buy up to $20 on one card.

Insert the card in the slot and it will disappear, the gates will open and the card will reappear with the amount of the ride subtracted. When a train is about to arrive, spotlights come alive along the platforms. Cars are heated in winter, air-conditioned in summer. There are no vending machines, no toilets and precious few billboards. But there is an elevator to take handicapped passengers to train levels.

A ride to the Capitol South station put us within the shadow of the Capitol. Alongside were the Library of Congress, all marble, and magnolia trees, facing a row of federal houses in shades of red, blue, yellow and gray. In good weather one can brown-bag it at a picnic table on the terrace of the Library of Congress and dream of weighty decisions being made in the Capitol across the road.

To the Museums

A ride on the Blue Line to Smithsonian puts you in walking distance of all the museums on the mall: the Freer Gallery, the Smithsonian, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Gallery, the National Air and Space Museum and, far down, the National Gallery.

A quick zoom underground to Federal Triangle lets out in front of the Old Post Office (and next door to Internal Revenue's offices). Avoiding IRS, look into the Old Post Office, now the Pavilion, with rolling carts selling knickknacks, the Upper Duck selling mugs and trinkets and an international assortment of fast-food counters offering Indian delights, egg foo yung and moo goo gai pan at the Panda, gyros and souvlakia at Pegasus, enchiladas at Taco Don's and corned beef sandwiches at the Catskills Deli.

Heading for the White House? Get off at McPherson Square. Heading for the Capitol Hilton, make tracks for the old Statler (which is what it was). A sprinkling of $44 million has created 550 new guest rooms, elegant in mauve, camel and gray. Marble in the bath, marble in the foyers, phones in the loo, hair dryers and terry robes. Trader Vic's, already redone, is nourishing the folks while the work finishes on the main palace of calories, Twigs, which promises to bloom with the spring.

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