By Jenny Gross - 10/23/07 06:58 PM EDT
People rightly assume that lawmakers, often seen sliding into cabs and sometimes limos after votes, tend to use upscale methods of transportation. But they sometimes use less expensive modes, such as the Metro, to get around D.C. Eighty-four percent of members of Congress who responded to a survey conducted by The Hill said they had ridden the Metro before; 63 percent said they had used it within the past year.
Of the 107 House members who responded, 88 said they had ridden the Metro. Of the 14 senators who responded, all said they had used the Metro, although four had not ridden it in the past year.
“I’m surprised the numbers are that high, but it just shows how important the Metro is for government officials, workers and tourists to get around,” said Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), one of the main supporters of a bill that seeks to provide stable funding and additional accountability for the Metro transit system.
While Davis does not ride the Metro regularly, he uses it to go to sporting events such as Nationals games and events where parking is limited. “I remember riding the Metro to get to Reagan’s Memorial Ball because parking was so tough,” he said.
Members fall into the 36 percent of Metro riders with a household income of over $100,000. By contrast, a 2004 study showed that only 8 percent of subway users in Los Angeles earned that much.
Government workers, including congressmen and senators, who travel to work using the Metro are eligible to receive transit benefits of up to $110 per month, said Metro spokeswoman Cathy Asato.
Like Fallin, Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) uses the Metro to get to work, but she said she did not know about the benefit program. She rides the Metro to work from Arlington every day with her son, dropping him off at daycare on the way.
Fallin takes the Metro home one to two nights per week. “It’s so easy to get around in this city compared to Oklahoma, where I never used public transportation,” she said. “When Congress gets out of session late, I’m a little less comfortable riding, so I try to catch a ride [with co-workers] after 10 p.m.”
Davis proposed a bill to increase funding for the Metro system in the 109th Congress, but it died in the Senate. It has since been reintroduced and approved by the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and now awaits floor action. Fallin, a member of the Transportation Committee, said she would consider increasing Metro funding “if it could be justified and would help ease traffic.”
One of the main opponents of the bill, Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), attacked the Davis plan and said there is already a funding formula for mass transit. “I’m sitting at my desk eating a nice lunch right now, and I don’t expect federal taxpayers to subsidize it,” he said.
Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), who didn’t vote on the bill in the last Congress because it died in a Senate committee, was part of a crew that laid tracks for the Metro during the summers in between his college years. “[My parents] thought it was important that I learn the value of hard work, and it was hard,” he wrote in his autobiography. Bayh used to ride Metro regularly, but now does so infrequently.
This is the case with many lawmakers — they simply don’t have the need for it.
“I live close and walk to work,” said Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas), a former criminal court judge.
Rep. Earl Pomeroy (D-N.D.) uses the Metro sparingly because he usually drives a Ford Escort. If his children visit, however, it’s Metro all the way. “It’s easy, clean, quiet. My kids really like it because we don’t have one of those in Bismarck.”
Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) said he has ridden the Metro but doesn’t do so regularly. “I’ve been on the Metro,” Gutierrez said, reinforcing that it’s not an issue of snobbery. “You have to remember I drove a cab for four years.”
Twenty-five percent of members of Congress who had ridden the Metro before had not ridden it in the past year. Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.), a strong supporter of public transit, has not ridden the Metro recently.
“The main reason I’m not a frequent Metro user is because I live so close to my office,” he said. “I have a block to walk to work, and I like to get the exercise.”
Rep. Vic Snyder (D-Ark.) also walks to work, but occasionally rides the Metro. Last month, he and his wife rode the Metro to the zoo with their 1-year-old son, and at each stop, Snyder’s son would dance to the two-toned Metro chime. “My son started doing a little head-bob and dancing around every time the door chimed,” Snyder said.
Like Doyle and Snyder, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) also chooses to burn calories instead of gasoline. Every day, he rides his bike about a mile to work, often riding an extra loop around the Capitol for additional exercise. He bikes to important meetings, like when he used to visit former Vice President Al Gore at the White House, and rides at night and in the rain and snow.
“I have burned tens of thousands of calories, saved hours of traffic, saved money, never have had to look for a parking space and generally have a more positive outlook on life,” Blumenauer said. He even keeps two spare bikes for when guests come to visit.
While politicians in the public eye often use public transportation to make a political statement, demonstrating humility and their dedication to the environment, many members of Congress ride the Metro for the same reasons most people do — to avoid the hassles of limited, expensive D.C. parking, make family day trips and commute to work.
So tomorrow morning, when standing on the Metro pressed between commuters, look around. That person clad in a business suit and briefcase at the front of the train could be among the most revered political figures in the country.
But it won’t likely be Poe.
“People on the Metro don’t recognize me,” the lawmaker said. “They recognize my boots more than they recognize me and say, ‘Hey, are you from Texas?’ ”