The District government is warning drivers to stay away from downtown areas from tomorrow afternoon to early Friday, when extensive street closings and an influx of people attending the presidential inauguration are likely to bring traffic to a standstill.
Never have so many streets been cordoned off for a major event, city officials said.
Citing security concerns for the first inaugural since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, federal officials announced last week that they plan to prevent vehicles from entering approximately 100 blocks of the city and restrict traffic on an additional 100 blocks on Inauguration Day. The area stretches from George Washington University and the Lincoln Memorial across the city to Union Station and beyond Capitol Hill. Several blocks around the city's new Convention Center will also be blocked off.
Officials also warned residents to expect a sizable number of temporary closings starting today as VIPs are shuttled around town.
Traffic watchers said people should think of it as something like a regular weekday rush hour and a major snowstorm wrapped together.
"Given all the closures, given the security things, the best advice we can give is just don't drive," said Lon Anderson, spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic. "Driving in Washington is always a challenge. This is going to rise to a level of a very, very special challenge, and it's just not worth the patience and effort to do it."
Much of the city's normal traffic won't be around Thursday because it's a city and federal holiday, which usually spurs some private firms to close for the day, but officials said there will be many more celebrants coming into Washington.
City officials fear that tomorrow afternoon's rush hour could have the worst tie-ups of the week because that's when the festivities and street closings begin in full force and it's also when tens of thousands of downtown workers will be trying to get home.
D.C. Transportation Director Dan Tangherlini said closures on 15th and 17th streets NW and Constitution Avenue that start at noon would place incredible pressure on other roads heading out of the city. The result could resemble the tangle caused in 2003 when a North Carolina tobacco farmer drove his tractor onto part of the Mall and police responded by blocking off streets.
"I'm nervous about Wednesday night," Tangherlini said. "I'm worried about the 'Tractor Man' effect."
Tangherlini suggested that workers use leave time to avoid the mess or "choose Wednesday to be the 'try Metro day' and see how they get to and from work on Metro."
As was the case during the ceremonies surrounding the state funeral of President Ronald Reagan in June, when Metro set a record for ridership, officials are counting on the subway system to move people between their hotels and the festivities.
Metro said trains will run from 5 a.m. Thursday to 3 a.m. Friday to accommodate people heading to evening balls and other events. Trains will run every four to six minutes downtown from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Inauguration Day and every 7.5 to eight minutes from 8 to 10 p.m. All trains will have six cars today through Thursday, and extra trains will be on hand in case they're needed.
Additionally, Metro officials said they will charge off-peak fares all day Thursday, and parking will be free at Metro-run facilities. Workers will stand inside high-volume stations to sell round-trip Farecards, and personnel will be spread throughout the system to assist throngs of people unfamiliar with the subway. Metro will offer a commemorative inaugural one-day Metrorail pass for $6.50 in all stations.
On Inauguration Day, the Smithsonian and Archives-Navy Memorial stations will be closed from 5 a.m. until the parade ends about 5 p.m.; the Mount Vernon Square-Seventh Street-Convention Center station will close at 3 p.m. and reopen at 1 a.m., and the Judiciary Square station entrance on F Street NW will close at 5:30 p.m. and reopen at 1 a.m.
Bus service will be complicated by the same street closings that will hamper motorists. "Because of extensive street closures, we'll have at least 17 Metro buses detoured," Metro spokesman Steven Taubenkibel said. "It will be a challenge."
Taubenkibel said that 601,839 rode the system on Inauguration Day 2001 but noted that that was on a Saturday.
Virginia officials said all road construction projects would be halted Thursday and that all high-occupancy-vehicle rules would be in effect. Maryland officials said they will post inaugural information on overhead signs and radio alerts.
Traffic officials outside the District said their prospects for Thursday could be a good bit rosier than in the city. They said that because Inauguration Day is a federal holiday and many private-sector workers are likely to stay home, Thursday's traffic is expected to be thin.
"The good news is that normal commuter traffic will be less," said Valerie Burnette Edgar, a spokeswoman for the Maryland State Highway Administration.