WASHINGTON — Japan has its lightning-fast bullet train, San Francisco has its high-tech BART commuter rail system and now the U.S. Senate may be about to give itself its own state-of-the-art subway.
Two Senate committees are studying a proposal to give a $12-million computerized face lift to the aging underground shuttle that bears the lawmakers to the Capitol from their offices in other buildings. A consultant says the new subway would shave about a minute and a half off a senator's travel time.
Lawmakers' complaints about their current shuttle echo those of many commuters: The equipment is old, it breaks down too often and it takes passengers too long to get where they are going.
But the senators are in a position to do something about their problem. They may soon vote on whether to approve the project, which would take two years to build.
"The service is not up to the level it needs to be," says Charles Elms, senior principle of Lea + Elliott, the local consulting firm that studied the trains. "The whole idea is to maximize senators' time and not have them running back and forth."
Two 18-seat shuttles ply a pair of tracks between the Capitol and the two most distant Senate office buildings: the Hart building, about four blocks away, and the Dirksen building, about three blocks off.
Senators, their staffs and the public--including tourists--use the cars all day, but the subway's chief function is to carry lawmakers to the Senate chamber in time to make a roll-call vote.
Under the proposal, riders would hop onto a new fleet of as many as four 25-seat cars, similar to the "people movers" used at many large airports. They would circulate on a loop of tracks, rather than shuttling back and forth over the same track, and would be driven by computer instead of the human operators now on each car.
The average trip from the Hart building would take 113 seconds, according to Elms. It now takes 164 seconds. The average trip from the Dirksen building would take 81 seconds, a 43-second improvement over current times.
Even more dramatic savings would come on the longest trips, those when a rider just misses a car and has to wait for the next one, according to Elms.
In such cases, the wait for a train and the trip from the Hart building now takes 256 seconds but would be shortened to 154 seconds. From the Dirksen building, a maximum trip now taking 195 seconds would last only 111 seconds.
Coveted by Senators
Such savings might seem unimpressive to the average commuter, but they are apparently coveted by senators.
"Waiting time is not something that is very tolerable around here," says Elliott Carroll, executive assistant in the Capitol architect's office.
Last month, when George M. White, the Capitol architect, described the plan to the Senate legislative appropriations subcommittee, Chairman Dale Bumpers (D-Ark.) said, "I think you will find 100 senators in accord in trying to do something about the subway system."
The first Senate subway was built in 1908 to serve the Russell building, which at the time was the only Senate office building. Two shuttles on two tracks serve that building, which is just two blocks from the Capitol, and that service is not considered a problem.
In 1958, another tunnel opened to serve the new Dirksen building. That was extended to the Hart building in 1982, when that building opened, and Carroll says that is when complaints started coming in.
The cars now serving the Hart and Dirksen buildings were installed in 1958 at a cost of $85,000 apiece.
Under the proposal for the new system--which faces scrutiny by the Senate Rules and Appropriations committees--it would cost $2 million for five new cars, one of them a spare.