Monday, May 7, 2001

Things in Washington can sometimes get petty. The effort to name or rename sites for former President Ronald Reagan is one place where that pettiness can be seen clearly. While there are some conservatives who have objected to the effort, probably in an effort to demonstrate their bipartisanship on an issue that, to them, substantively matters little, the vast majority of conservative leaders and activists think this to be a swell idea.

Currently, there is a pitched battle over the correct name of the Metro station at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. On one side is Georgia Republican Bob Barr, who is leading an effort to force the Washington Area Metropolitan Transit Authority (WAMTA) to re-label the station with the name of the facility it serves.

On the other is the WAMTA board, led in this case by Vice Chairman Chris Zimmerman, an Arlington County Democrat elected official, who is resisting the effort with some tenacity. Both sides have dug in, and rather deeply at that.

In 1997, Congress voted to rename the airport closest to the nation´s capital for the 40th president. A controversial move even at the time, Democrats who opposed the Reagan agenda did everything they could think of to stop the effort. Particularly vitriolic was Virginia Rep. Jim Moran, in whose district the facility sits, and who is no fan of Mr. Reagan or conservatives.

Among Mr. Moran´s more interesting assertions was that the airport was already named for a president George Washington. This, of course, is as nonsensical as suggesting that Baltimore-Washington International airport is named for Lord Baltimore. This line of argument went nowhere. The bill passed in spite of efforts to derail it and it was signed by President Clinton.

The bureaucrats who represent the real power in Washington resisted acknowledging the change. Only after Republicans in Congress intervened, for example, would the federal administrators in charge of signage along the George Washington Parkway alter the signs to reflect the new name of the airport.

WAMTA has continually resisted changing the name of the Metro station that services the airport and is, now that the new terminal is built, connected to it by a series of walkways that render it an extension of the structure.

WAMTA maintains, at the urging of its board, that the stop remain “National Airport” at the Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport even though it is now sandwiched between the terminal on one side and several rather large parking structures on the other.

According to WAMTA board tradition, members are given special deference to their opinion where facilities that lie inside their respective districts are concerned. Mr. Zimmerman, who has in the past called the effort to change the name of the station “stupid” and “media driven,” refuses to ask the board to change the name and has tried to portray the battle as one of the federal Goliath against the WAMTA David.

While Mr. Barr and others may be exercising a little more “emphasis” than is appropriate as regards the rights of states and localities, that is merely a diversion from the central point. Democrats, who never liked Mr. Reagan while he was president, will resist any effort to extend honors to him now that he has passed from the public eye.

It is as though they believe that any complicity in honoring him through the very American practice of naming municipal structures makes them part and parcel endorsers of his politics, which they cannot stomach.

Mr. Moran, and other officials, have complained that changing the name would cost WAMTA in excess of $400,000 to rich for Metro´s blood.

The expense would come, not just from new signs at the station, but in changes that would have to be made on station pylons and systems maps all over the area. That seems like an awful lot of expense for some stickers and paper.

Mr. Barr and others argue that having a station with a different name than the airport it serves may be confusing. Metro rejects this argument, although they have, in the name of clarity, used it to justify:

Renaming the Red Line´s Woodley Park-Zoo station Woodley Park-Zoo-Adams Morgan; renaming the Blue Line´s Addison Road stop as Addison Road-Seat Pleasant; renaming the Mount Vernon Square stop, as it was called even before it was serviced by the Yellow Line, Mount Vernon Square-7th Street-Convention Center to reflect its proximity to a facility still under construction; and changing the Green Line station at U Street to the U Street-African American Civil War Memorial-Cardozo stop, perhaps the longest name in the system.

All these changes were made at a total expense of $1,600,000 if the claimed costs to change the airport stop are consistent to Metro so that people might have a clearer idea of where they were when they got off the train.

The real reason for the opposition to renaming the station is petty politics. Opponents of the change regard Mr. Reagan with contempt. They are using typically Reaganite arguments about local independence that they reject when it involves welfare, housing, the environment or just about any other issue one could name to shoot it down.

The idea of flying into an airport named for Ronald Reagan bothers them. The idea of riding to or through a Metro station that bears his name infuriates them.

At a 1998 party banquet Mr. Moran promised that in short order, should Democrats ever regain control of the House, “the Republican majority´s ill-conceived and entirely inappropriate decision to rename National Airport for Ronald Reagan would be reversed …” and the bill to do it would be H.R. 1, the piece of legislation Mr. Moran believes to be most important.

Were it not for their political pettiness, the signs in the station would match the name by which it is called by the train operators. Listen carefully the next time you ride the Yellow or Blue Line south of Washington and you will hear them: “Next stop, Reagan National Airport” reflecting once again, the ability of the ordinary American to rise above Washington politics.

Peter Roff is an Alexandria, Virginia resident who has been a Metro rider on and off for the last 15 years.

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