MLK Memorial a challenging site for visitors

Robert Thomson
Columnist August 20, 2011

Freedom marchers who haven’t visited the capital since the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered one of the greatest speeches by an American on Aug. 28, 1963, will find the District much easier to get around as they arrive to dedicate King’s memorial.

Now they can travel on one of the nation’s biggest subway systems. But to place the King memorial by those for Lincoln, Jefferson, Washington and Roosevelt, planners had to wedge it into a Tidal Basin site pretty far from any of the subway stations. And on dedication day next Sunday, the older soldiers of the civil rights movement may not be as up for a long march in the sun as the one they took to hear King talk about his dream.

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region. View Archive

These travel tips, for young as well as old, should help ease some of the challenges that will face a crowd that event sponsors say could be in the neighborhood of a quarter-million people.

The site

The best view of King’s statue is from the northwest side of the path that surrounds the Tidal Basin. The path is about the width of four people standing shoulder to shoulder. Nearby, cherry trees overhang the path and the water. The memorial’s main entrance is on Independence Avenue SW, where a new traffic signal and crosswalks will provide access.

While this western side of the Mall puts a visitor in range of the King, Lincoln, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Korean War and Vietnam War memorials, travelers can easily get disoriented. Brown pylons point the way to the sites, but there are no pointers yet for the King Memorial. The “You are here” maps don’t have a distinctive icon to mark the new memorial. Look for the small, white lettering by West Potomac Park that says, “Future site of Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial.”

The memorial is opening to the public this week, before the dedication next Sunday. Here’s the schedule: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday; 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday; 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Wednesday; and 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Thursday.

The dedication

Next Sunday, the music starts at 8:30 a.m. The dedication ceremony starts at 11 a.m. Visitors who don’t have tickets for the ceremony’s seating area will probably find themselves standing on the wide-open grassy fields of West Potomac Park. Their best view from there will be on big video screens set up for the event.

This may remind many of their experience at the 2009 presidential inauguration. Only that was in January.

This time, they could spend hours in the heat or the rain. This area, laid out for ballfields, has few sheltering trees. With those conditions in mind, sponsors urge attendees to plan for a long day, wear light, loose-fitting clothing, monitor the weather forecast and bring a rain poncho if necessary. Wear sensible shoes, especially if you’re going to be walking across the fields.

Parking

This week, the National Park Service says, no vehicle drop offs will be allowed on Independence Avenue or Ohio Drive. A visitor taxi stand is available at the Lincoln Memorial.

Don’t try driving to the memorial area on dedication day. There will be a security perimeter, many nearby streets will be closed and parking restrictions will be in effect. Streets beyond the closed-off zone are likely to be congested.

Organizers recommend parking cars and buses at RFK Stadium, near I-295 and 395. The parking fees are $85 for buses and $25 for cars. For details on permits, see the organization’s Web site at dedicatethedream.org.

Buses entering the District must purchase a bus trip permit, valid for six days. This is in addition to the parking permit for RFK Stadium. Bus companies can find more information at dmv.dc.gov/info/trippermit.shtm.

A parking area at RFK will be set aside for attendees who have vehicles equipped for wheelchairs or who have other mobility needs.

From 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., free buses will shuttle people between RFK and a drop-off point on 23rd Street and Daniel French Drive SW. That’s the bus zone on the south side of the Lincoln Memorial, about a fifth of a mile from the area for ticketed guests on the memorial grounds. The free viewing area in West Potomac Park is just across Independence Avenue from the bus zone.

This is the choice organizers recommend for people with special needs, who are frail or who tire easily. But all participants should keep in mind that getting through these big crowds will be very challenging.

Metro

Metrorail: The train system will open at 5 a.m. next Sunday, two hours early. Service will end at midnight. From 5 a.m. to 8 p.m., trains will operate every eight to 12 minutes, an unusual frequency for a Sunday. The transit authority said trains will operate even more frequently on some portions of the Red and Orange lines that are likely to be crowded. No maintenance work requiring stations to close or trains to share tracks is scheduled.

Many station escalators will be turned off and will instead be used as stairways, Metro said. This is a standard safety procedure during special events of this size and is intended to prevent dangerous crowding on the platforms or on the escalators themselves. (This plan doesn’t affect elevator operations.)

Parking will be free at all lots and garages operated by Metro, but plan to arrive long before the ceremony starts to make sure you get a space.

Metrobus: The buses will operate on their normal Sunday schedules. Detours are possible in the area around the Mall, and riders heading downtown should allow extra time.

MetroAccess: Trips need to be reserved by 4:30 p.m. the day before travel. Because of the extra traffic and street closings, allow more time for travel through downtown.

Fares: Despite the extra service, the usual off-peak fares will be in effect next Sunday. Many people in town for the week-long series of events connected to the dedication will choose to buy Metrorail’s commemorative one-day pass, with its image of the King statue printed on the paper card. Those are good all day on Saturdays, Sundays and federal holidays. If you use a one-day pass for travel on a weekday, remember that it won’t work before 9:30 a.m. Avoid long lines at vending machines and fare gates on dedication day by having enough value on your paper farecard or plastic SmarTrip card to cover a round trip.

Biking

Although this is a beautiful area for cycling, the crowding next Sunday will make street and sidewalk travel difficult. Bike parking around the memorial site is very limited. Bikes will not be allowed in the train system next Sunday.

Capital Bikeshare: A day’s membership in the bike rental program costs $5. There is a Bikeshare station at 19th Street and Constitution Avenue NW on the north side of the Mall. Other stations are at Virginia Avenue and 21st Street NW and at 19th and E streets NW. A big event like this probably will tie up many of the bikes, so it’s best to have an alternative plan. For details, check CapitalBikeshare.com.

Walking

Many attendees will be walking from Metrorail stations to the memorial. The closest stations are Smithsonian and Foggy Bottom on the Blue and Orange lines and Arlington Cemetery on the Blue Line. None of these is a short walk, but it should be manageable for a person in reasonable health, even in hot weather. Smithsonian is eight-tenths of a mile from the memorial grounds, Foggy Bottom 1.4 miles and Arlington Cemetery 1.2 miles. Metro predicts that Foggy Bottom and Smithsonian will be extremely crowded and suggests the alternatives of L’Enfant Plaza (Blue, Orange, Yellow, Green) at 1.3 miles, Farragut North (Red Line) at 1.5 miles, Farragut West (Orange and Blue) at 1.5 miles and McPherson Square (Orange and Blue) at 1.6 miles.

My choice would be the Arlington Cemetery station. It’s a nice, flat walk, and an inspirational one, because you cross the Potomac River via Arlington Memorial Bridge, looking up at the Lincoln Memorial, before bending right toward Independence Avenue.

The trip between the station escalators and West Potomac Park took me 21 minutes at a leisurely pace. Be especially careful crossing the roads around Memorial Circle, but on Sunday, you should be part of a big crowd of pedestrians.

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