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Lawmakers lash cops over tractor man

By SHAUN WATERMAN

WASHINGTON, April 10 (UPI) -- Lawmakers gave a tongue lashing Thursday to Washington area officials for allowing a protesting tobacco farmer with a tractor to gridlock city traffic for two days, and one suggested that the capital region's transportation infrastructure might have to be brought under federal control.

"Moving people in and out of the nation's capital, so that they can do the nation's business, is a federal responsibility," Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., told local homeland security officials at a hearing of the House Government Reform Committee. "It's something we in the Congress are accountable for, and if we can't get the recognition and prioritization (of that) at the local level, then maybe it's something we have to take over."

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The committee held a daylong hearing on Washington's emergency preparedness in the wake of several incidents -- including especially last month's two-day standoff on the National Mall with a disgruntled tobacco farmer -- that Davis said revealed how easy it is to wreak havoc during the rush-hour commute, and effectively showed terrorists "that it only takes one person to paralyze the nation's capital."

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Speaking of recent car accident on the 14th Street bridge -- one of the key arteries into the District of Columbia from neighboring Virginia -- Davis said it had stopped the workings of government, "we couldn't get a quorum (on the committee) yesterday ... The concern here is, if a fender bender ... or a guy riding a tractor having a bad day can bring us to a stop, imagine what a terrorist can do."

On Monday, March 17, Dwight Watson, a North Carolina tobacco farmer, rolled his tractor into a pond on the National Mall near the Washington Monument. Claiming to have explosives, but actually unarmed, he held off three police forces -- local police, the FBI and the Park Police -- equipped with automatic weapons for 47 hours before giving himself up.

During the standoff, authorities closed an eight-block area of downtown Washington, causing rush-hour gridlock and reducing many motorists to impotent fury.

Lawmakers highlighted the special problems of the capital region, which encompasses all three branches of the federal government and three separate jurisdictions -- Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia -- each with its own police force and emergency plans, but all reliant on the same transportation infrastructure, and several agreed with Davis' criticisms of the way that infrastructure is managed.

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"I don't think (state and local-level transportation authorities) are doing the appropriate job to enable people to get back and forth," said Rep. Frank R. Wolf, R-Va., "VDOT (the Virginia Department of Transportation) and the region just can't get together. ... It's out of control."

But local officials suggested that the problem might be limits of the infrastructure itself.

Michael Byrne, a senior official at the newly created Department of Homeland Security with responsibility for coordinating anti-terror efforts across the region, said that he had been meeting with the transportation departments of all three jurisdictions, and that they were coordinating closely with each other: "We've got together and talked about it. They're really communicating. The question is: given the capacity of the infrastructure we've got, how much better can we really make it? It may end up coming down to a capacity issue."

Richard White, general manager of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, which runs the region's subway and many of its buses, told the panel that even under normal circumstances, mass transit in and around the capital was strained to breaking point, "On a good day the network is kind of fragile, the capacity is barely able to meet the demands and ... any event just spins out of control quickly."

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He said that this lack of a safety margin in capacity was a major headache for emergency planners who are depending on mass transit to get thousands of people out of the city in the event of evacuation: "This region has a serious problem in its transportation infrastructure with respect to its capacity insufficiency, both on the transit side and on the road side. ... We're just not getting the job done."

He added that it would need a more than 50 percent hike in the area's transport spending to fix the problem: "Today the region ... spends $3 billion every year on its surface transportation programs, and based upon a reasonable assessment -- not a wish list, but a reasonable assessment -- of what the region (needs) to protect its infrastructure and have a modest expansion, we need another $1.7 billion a year."

Lawmakers lashed local law enforcement chiefs for letting the stand off with Watson last two days, especially as he eventually turned out to be unarmed. "The only dangerous item he had was tobacco," said Davis, to titters from the audience.

Davis told Washington police chief Charles Ramsey that "innocent people, who were obeying the law, were put in jeopardy," as emergency vehicles found themselves stranded in grid-locked traffic, while police held off, fearing that Watson might be armed or -- worse -- might have packed his tractor's trailer with fertilizer-based explosive.

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But Ramsey, local FBI chief Van A. Harp and the head of the U.S. Park Police, Teresa C. Chambers, all defended the decision to close an eight-block area and allow the siege to play itself out. Harp said explosive experts had carefully calculated the blast radius of the maximum amount of improvised explosive he could have hidden in the trailer and concluded that -- with the road closures they had put in place -- there was no risk to the public.

Chambers said that tear gas had been used, but proved ineffective. Ramsey added that, while the use of deadly force had been considered, "I don't believe in killing people to move traffic." To storm Watson's tractor, he said, could have put officers' lives at risk.

Davis acknowledged that the agencies had followed standard procedure, but added, "We need to learn a lesson from this ... If this was done by the book, we need a new book."

He said that the agencies had to factor in the risks of tying up the capital's roads to any new strategies. "We can't afford to have this kind of thing recurring and recurring and recurring," he said. It was all well and good to minimize the chance that deadly force might have to be used, he said, but, "We have to have a strategy to minimize the impact on traffic as well ... It holds up the business of government."

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