06 Jul 2020

History:

Lost Capitol Hill: Disney World on the Hill

J. Raymond Carroll

To finally bring our long look at Capitol Hill subways to a close, today we will look at what is currently transporting Senators under Constitution Avenue to the Capitol. The 1960s subway really started to go into a decline with the opening of the Hart Building in 1981, with the distance to be traversed just too great. It was time to look for a replacement, especially as the ride was not the smoothest.

After many years’s discussion, as is the norm for such matters, the decision was made to replace only the longer segments. In other words the subway that connected the Hart and Dirksen Buildings would be replaced, leaving the shorter segment to the old Senate Office building intact. After all, it – like its counterpart on the south side of the Capitol – was still operating smoothly.

In looking for a new technology, the Senators looked north of the border, to Bombardier Transportation, the rail division of Canada’s Bombardier corporation. While there was some griping about the “giant sucking sound” this represented, the fact that this company had recently built new trains used by the Disney World monorail went a long way to allaying fears.

Their proposal was also, as J. Raymond Carroll ––chief engineer in the Architect of the Capitol’s office and pictured above–– pointed out, the only one that would fit the current rails. The fact that he got a picture of himself with Mickey Mouse discussing the contract was not considered a deal-breaker.

Ian Herzog-Pohl on the Senate subway in 2014 (RSP/THL edit)

As long as it took to make the decision of which system to use, the actual work was not done overnight, either. The Washington Post explained on January 25, 1994:

After that, it was a simple matter of bashing in a wall of the Hart building garages so the contractors could get the new cars inside. [Architect of the Capitol’s administrative assistant William F.] Raines said the architect plans to keep the gaping hole as a convenient way to move statues and other large objects in and out of the Capitol, a 200-year-old rabbit warren where a fluorescent light bulb is about the longest item that can negotiate corners without catastrophe.

The new system has been working well since it opened in late 1994. The biggest problem today is that the subway platforms are a good place for reporters to waylay Senators who have been reluctant to face their questions elsewhere. In 2017, the Washington Post published a long article about the history of the subway and the current conditions, including anecdotes of Senators plunging across the tracks to avoid answering questions.

The article continues:

There are warnings from the Senate Media Gallery that the subway platforms are too crowded with the hordes of journalists seeking reactions to President Trump’s latest tweets. A lobbyist, waiting for one of the trains, turns to a slightly bewildered-looking police officer.

“Is it me,” she says, “or are things really crazy here today?”

Some Senators also avoid the subway for a much more prosaic reason: They need to get their steps in, and the underground tunnel is the perfect place to do that.

If you want to get a ride on the subway, you’ll need to be with someone who works in the Capitol, either in a congressmember’s office or for the Architect of the Capitol.


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