WASHINGTON -- Despite recent criticism over costly congressional perquisites, the Senate is proceeding with an $18 million plan to modernize the subway shuttle that carries lawmakers, staff and tourists a few blocks from nearby office buildings to the Capitol.
Under plans approved three years ago by the Senate Rules and Appropriations committees, four automated cars will replace operator-run vehicles on the line between the Senate and its Hart and Dirksen office buildings by the end of 1994.
Existing subway cars on the shortest route to the Russell Building will not be affected, however, since traffic on that line is not as heavy and many people walk the two-block distance to and from the Senate side of the Capitol.
Subways to the Hart and Dirksen buildings, where a large majority of the senators have their offices, are reserved exclusively for lawmakers during roll-call votes to speed the Senate's business.
The new system will reduce average waiting times from four minutes to 1 1/2 minutes, save $122,000 in operating costs and make the subway cars accessible to patrons in wheelchairs, a spokesman in the Capitol architect's office said.
A spokesman for Sen. Wendell Ford, D-Ky., chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, said that the subway modernization has been under consideration since 1985.
The automated system was chosen as the most cost-effective alternative among a number of options, including a moving sidewalk, the spokesman said.
Another Senate aide said that existing subway cars have been in use since 1958 and frequently break down, requiring standby maintenance crews as well as three shifts of operators when the Senate is in session.
But some Senate officials, aware of the increasing public focus on congressional expenditures, braced for another wave of criticism.
It was only last Friday that Senate Democratic and Republican leaders, responding to criticism that the perks of their office were overly generous, announced in a show of austerity that their restaurant hours would be reduced and that senators would pay $400 a year for their health club and $520 a year if they wished to use the services of the Capitol physician.
"The media is going to jump on anything we do," said Walt Riker, spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan. "We have millions of tourists coming through every year and this [new subway] is partly for the public. But the media makes the place look like the Taj Mahal."
A report of the subway modernization project carried in Roll Call, a newspaper widely circulated on Capitol Hill, indicated that his prophecy may be correct. It said: ". . . their design should please members [of the Senate] who want to make sure their all-important hairdos stay just so for that crucial C-SPAN moment."