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The Parking Perk Crisis

FEW things test veteran travelers' patience as much as slowly circling above an airport while the pilot waits for an open runway.

One type of delay, however, may be harder to bear: circling airport parking lots, looking for a space to stash the car so they can sprint to the gate and take off, even if only to circle over somebody else's airport.

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Nowhere is this more of a problem these days than in Washington, D.C., where the usual parking shortage is exacerbated by construction at National Airport, making empty spaces as scarce as tickets to a Streisand concert. Yet as the hapless motorist circles, hoping for just one skinny subcompact to depart, he or she must contemplate a sea of empty spaces, unused but off-limits. At National, 124 spaces are reserved day and night for members of Congress, Supreme Court justices, and diplomats. At Dulles, the number is 51.

Congress has given up, however reluctantly, its free health care and its free gym privileges. But a guaranteed parking space, one of the most cherished perks of Western civilization? No. By a vote of 53-44, the Senate recently defeated a resolution submitted by Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona that would have opened up the precious parking preserve.

Senator McCain admitted that declaring World War III ``would probably evoke less emotion'' from his colleagues. Sen. John Danforth (R) of Missouri spoke passionately of 100-hour work weeks, followed by a dash to the airport to catch the last plane home - all made possible only by those reserved slots. Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun (D) of Illinois asked with equal anguish: ``When is this Congress-bashing going to stop?''

Unmoved, Senator McCain continued to insist that the parking perk ``is a perfect example of how out of touch the Congress often is with the overwhelming majority of Americans.''

On a list of national and international crises, parking privileges rank somewhere down around disputes over how much oregano to put in spaghetti sauce. Still, politicians' credibility could stand strengthening. Why not begin by applying a little Jacksonian democracy to that most grueling competitive event of everyday life, the race for the last parking space?

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