As members of Congress jet out of Washington to enjoy a month’s vacation, there’s one thing they don’t have to worry about: parking at the airport - or even paying for it.
Thanks to a special “Restricted Parking - Authorized Users Only” parking lot tucked within strolling distance of all terminals at National Airport, senators and representatives get to bypass that frantic ritual of circling drab parking garages as minutes tick away to takeoff.
They don’t have to keep tabs on those blue tickets, lug bulky luggage from parking lot hinterlands or set aside a hunk of their travel budget so they can pay whopping parking fees upon return - $28 a day in comparable public lots.
“If we did that, we’d have to hock our cars,” griped J.D. Leverett, a Springfield, Va., man who parked in an hourly lot to pick up a friend. His $4 bought him one hour of up-close parking.
On Friday, the first day of the congressional recess, there sat Sen. Phil Gramm’s car in the restricted lot. The Republican’s mammoth Chevy Tahoe is easy to identify: Its Texas license plate reads “Senate 1.”
A red Ford Thunderbird sporting Mississippi plates and a “Saxby Chambliss, U.S. Congress” bumper sticker likewise had taken advantage of the prime location. Chambliss is a Republican congressman from Georgia. A few cars with diplomat tags also were scattered about.
“We’ve just accepted it, we’ve lived here a long time,” said Warren Colbe of Fairfax, Va., holding a blue ticket as he searched for his car.
To Guy Vander Jagt, who served 28 years as a congressman from Michigan, the special access - which is also available at Dulles Airport - is “one of the best investments taxpayers can make.”
“They need all the help they can get with their hectic schedules,” Vander Jagt said of his former colleagues as he parked his slick forest-green convertible Jaguar before heading to Terminal B. As a former member of Congress, Vander Jagt - like diplomats and Supreme Court justices - also has access.
The privilege started when the federal government ran the two airports. It continued when an airport authority board assumed control in 1987.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., tried to persuade Congress to do away with the perk in 1994. His bill failed, 53-44.
In the meantime, National Airport has undergone a $1 billion renovation, expanding the main terminal into a stunning cathedral of windows and Jefferson domes. But as a consequence, 36 of the 124 reserved spaces were displaced.
Despite the loss, there are no plans to increase the restricted lot, especially since Metro rail service is so convenient to Washington travelers, said Ronald Stange, National’s manager of finance and administration.
“We’ll do what the Congress says,” Stange said. “If Congress says, ‘We don’t want it,’ we’ll close it.”