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 blocks to and from the Senate side of the Capitol.
To speed the Senate's business, 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.
The new system will reduce average waiting times at terminals from four minutes to less than two minutes. It will save $122,000 in operating costs and make the subway accessible to people in wheelchairs, a spokesman in the Capitol architect's office said.
A spokesman for Sen. Wendell H. Ford (D-Ky.), chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, said the subway modernization has been under consideration since 1985. The automated system was chosen as the most cost effective of a number of options, which included a moving sidewalk, the spokesman said.
Another Senate aide said the present subway cars have been in use since 1958 and frequently break down, and they require standby maintenance crews as well as three shifts of operators when the Senate is in session.
In addition, the new cars will seat 25 passengers instead of 18 and have standing room as well, said Bill Raines, assistant to architect George White.
The cars are being built by the Transportation Group Inc., of Orlando, Fla., which will be paid $15.8 million for its work on design and manufacture. An additional $2.2 million will pay for work done by the architect's office.
Some Senate officials, aware of the increasing public focus on congressional expenditures, were braced for another wave of criticism. It was only last Friday, after all, that both Democratic and Republican leaders in the Senate, responding to criticism about the perks of their office, announced that restaurant hours would be reduced and that senators would each pay $400 a year for health club privileges and $520 a year if they wish to use the services of the Capitol physician.